A reinforcer is defined as a consequnce which causes the behaviour it followed to increase in future frequency. One consequence that many people fail to see that could be a reinforcer is being told off! Being told off or reprimanded ,in some cases may actually be increasing the behaviour in the longer term. We are seeing an increasing number of children who appear to be reinforced by reprimands. There are a few research papers that have specifically looked at this, Fisher et al. (2013) and Piazza et al. (2013). Both of these papers found that for some children reprimands were a reinforcer even when praise statements were available.
Being ‘told off’ when someone has done something inappropriate is such a part of our culture that for individuals who are reinforced by this, behaviour can rapidly increase. To find out if a behaviour is being reinforced by reprimands we first need to complete a functional behaviour assessment (FBA). A functional behaviour assessment should include observations, interviews, questionnaires and ABA data. Following the FBA, the behaviour analyst can then hypothesise the function of the behaviour. A behaviour support plan can then be developed. When developing a behaviour support plan, the most important part is to develop funcationally equivalent appropriate behaviours. These are behaviours that are more appropriate than the challenging behaviours, but that achieve the same function as the challenging behaviours.
If it is found that an individual’s behaviours are being reinforced by reprimands, we have found several key proactive programs that can be implemented to teach the individual functional replacement appropriate behaviours. These proactive programs are:
- Banter program – we need to ensure that the child can get the same reactions that they do for the challenging behaviours. Many people engage in banter in everyday life, but we often do not teach children with autism how to engage people in banter. We develop individualised banter programs to be able to teach them this.
- Practical jokes – teaching an individual to engage in minor practical jokes can be a great way for them to get access to emotionally intense interactions.
- Providing more intense social approval – one possible reason that some children may prefer reprimands rather than social approval may be that the emotional intensity of reprimands is greater than with social disapproval. Therefore we need to try to make social approval more intense and enjoyable than social disapproval. We can do this by exaggerating social approval but we can also ensure we are providing other tangible reinforcers paired with the delivery of social approval.