In a Psychology internship, you have encountered a child with destructive tendencies. She bites herself, her dog, and your bag of supplies. Being afraid for her safety and your own well-being, you...

In a Psychology internship, you have encountered a child with destructive tendencies. She bites herself, her dog, and your bag of supplies. Being afraid for her safety and your own well-being, you institute a plan to change her behavior. Suggest a punishment, with her possible reactions. Then, try substituting an alternative behavior by reinforcing an incompatible response. Label the antecedent stimulus for the biting response, Punishment I or II, escape or avoidance, and the reinforcement for the new named response. What do you consider to be the best theory or method for improving this child's behavior?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The student’s question does not provide sufficient details about the hypothetical child to warrant an explicit answer.  Speculation regarding disciplinary measures without far more information about the child can easily result in the existing situation being seriously exacerbated.  A child with no known physiological or emotional conditions who is simply, if destructively, acting out may require recourse to basic behavioral modification therapies, such as loss of privileges or diversionary tactics designed to condition the child to respond to adversity in a less deleterious manner. A child whose behavior is a result of physical or underlying emotional problems, for example, a chemical imbalance in the brain or bipolar disorder attributed to genetic mutations may very well prove resistant to behavioral modification therapies that can work with children whose biting or other aggressive practices are not rooted in physical characteristics of the individual brain.  Brain structure, which will only be determined through imaging (e.g., magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI), may be such that the child is physically incapable of responding to behavioral modification techniques.

The distinctions here are enormously important. There is no “one size fits all” response to aberrational behavior patterns that are not environmental in nature.  In order to answer the answer the student’s question, then, more information would be needed. Absent additional background information on the child in question, general recommendations assuming no underlying physiological condition are all that can be offered. Medications developed to help patients compensate for structural deficiencies, consequently, will not be discussed.

Another gap in knowledge involves the child’s age. Again, there is no “one size fits all” approach for disciplining children of all ages.  In general, however, a combination of negative and positive reinforcement is recommended.  Time-outs as a punishment for aggressive behavior are always an option, as long as the punishment is clearly associated directly with the inappropriate behavior, and the child will learn soon-enough the relationship between that behavior and the punishment.  Positive reinforcement can include oral (plaudits spoken in the proper tone) and physical (e.g., gentle hugs, playful interaction) interaction intended to reward the proper behavior towards others.

Preventing destructive behavior from occurring in the first place, while not always possible, is the optimal approach to handling children with a pattern of such behavior.  If the child repeatedly bites the family pet, then keep the child physically separated from the pet until he or she demonstrates the necessary restraint.  If the child is repeatedly biting or hitting a sibling or playmate, then, again, separating the children is the most effective response.  It cannot, however, be emphasized enough that there is no one magic button to address deviant behavior.  Different tactics work for different children.  If the destructive behavior continues, however, and the child has not been referred for diagnostic examination to determine whether an underlying physiological condition exists, then such examination should be undertaken.  Ultimately, only a trained therapist with experience in working with children with deviant or aggressive behavior can offer the appropriate strategy for addressing individual children.  Observations and trial-and-error strategies are the likeliest approach to resolve the problem.  And, medications designed to address physiological conditions may necessary.

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