One of the core principles of behavior management is that we all respond to rewards and punishments in our environment. When our behavior is “reinforced” or rewarded, we tend to keep engaging in that particular behavior. And when we are “punished” (as in not getting a reward or having something we like taken away) for a particular behavior, it can be expected that we will then avoid this behavior.
When I went to school to learn to be a special education teacher, I learned many of the behavior management techniques using this core principle. For example, I learned how to set up a token economy system where the child would earn tokens for good behavior that he or she could trade in later for some sort of reward. For many children with and without special needs, such strategies can help to improve behavior. But what happens when the traditional behavior management methods fail?
Some reasons why such methods may be ineffective for some children include:
• The behavior you are dealing with may be an obsession, ritual, or stereotypic behavior which usually cannot be altered with rewards or consequences.
• It is always a guess at what things motivate a child and many times our guess is wrong about what is actually perceived as a reward for a child. In fact, a punishment for a particular behavior may be more motivating and reinforcing to the child than what we deem as positive and rewarding. Negative attention, for example, may be a prime motivator for some children to keep engaging in inappropriate behaviors.
• When your child is in a group setting, particularly a classroom, you may be competing with the attention and reinforcement given by the other children for disruptive or acting behavior. If the other kids give attention or cheer on acting-out behavior, then any system you have for decreasing that behavior may not be effective.
• Some children will be undeterred by losing rewards or privileges. Once they fail at obtaining the reward you have set up then what is their motivation for good behavior? Or in some cases after getting a reward, some children will act out because they have gotten what they want so they may feel it is then safe to act up again.
• It is easy to get into a power struggle with your child of lording privileges and rewards over their head to gain compliance. The child can win this power struggle each and every time by simply not caring about what you are threatening to take away.
• There are some people who say that the reliance on external rewards does not translate to developing an intrinsic motivation to do well. There is a book by author Alfie Kohn entitled Punished by Rewards, where he describes a reading program of a small town where children were given points for each book they checked out of the local library during summer vacation. These points could then be redeemed for a free pizza. The program was effective during the points redeeming time allotment, as the children who got the pizzas did read more than other children. But once the program was over and pizza was no longer a reward, these same children read far fewer books than the other kids who had never been involved in the points program. Once that extrinsic reward went away so did the reading behavior.