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Avoiding Negative Reinforcement in the Classroom: Tips for Teachers with Aspergers Students

Negative reinforcement requires the student to work for the removal of an in-place, unpleasant consequence. The student's goal is to get rid of something that is unpleasant rather than to earn something that is desirable. In a negative reinforcement model, instead of working to earn a positive consequence, the student works to distance himself from an aversive consequence.

Negative reinforcement is often used in the classroom to manage problem behaviors in Aspergers (high-functioning autistic) children. Educators inadvertently pay attention to a student who may not be complying and withdraw their attention contingent on the student's compliance. Surprisingly, this strengthens rather than weakens the noncompliant behavior. The next time a similar situation occurs, the student again will not comply until confronted with the aversive consequence (i.e. the teacher's attention). Negative reinforcement is often seductive and coercive for educators. It works in the short run, but in the long run, is likely to strengthen rather than weaken the undesirable behavior.

Behaviors that in-and-of themselves may not be negative become negative reinforcers when paired with certain events. For example, a teacher approaching a student who is not working quickly becomes a negative reinforcer, even though the action itself, the teacher walking up to the student, does not have a negative connotation. Researchers found that negative reinforcement was rated by educators as the most frequently used classroom intervention. Kids with Aspergers often experience negative reinforcement because of their temperament, which makes it difficult for them to complete tasks – their consequent learning history reinforces them for beginning, but rarely for finishing.

A number of simple, effective ways exist to deal with this problem. If you, the teacher, are using negative reinforcement, pay attention to the student until the assignment is completed. Although this too is negative reinforcement, it teaches the student that the only way to get rid of the aversive consequence (i.e., your attention) is not just to start – but to complete the task at hand. As an example, you may move the student's desk next to your desk until that particular piece of work is completed.

A second alternative involves the use of differential attention or ignoring. The term differential attention applies when “ignoring” is used as the negative consequence for exhibiting the undesirable behavior and “attention” is used as a positive consequence for exhibiting the competing desirable behavior. This is an active process in which the teacher ignores the student engaged in an ‘off-task’ activity, but pays attention immediately when the student begins working. Many educators avoid interaction with the student when she is ‘on-task’ for fear of interrupting the student's train of thought. It is important, however, to reinforce the student when working so that a pattern of working to earn positive reinforcement rather than working to avoid negative reinforcement is developed.

Secondary school educators at times complain that if they ignore the Aspergers student during an hour-long class, they never have the opportunity to pay positive attention as the student may never exhibit positive behavior. Waiting, however, even if one has to wait until the next day, is more effective in the long run than paying attention to ‘off-task’ behavior.

Educators need to make a distinction between ‘off-task’ behavior that ‘disrupts’ and ‘off-task’ behavior that ‘does not disrupt’. Differential attention works effectively for the latter. However, when a student is ‘off-task’ and disturbing his neighbor, you may find that being a negative reinforcer holds an advantage in stemming the tide of an ‘off-task’ behavior that involves other children as well. Differential attention alone has been demonstrated to be ineffective in maintaining high rates of ‘on-task’ behavior and work productivity for children with Aspergers. In part, it is suggested that many factors other than teacher attention maintain and influence student behavior.

Differential attention is a powerful intervention when used appropriately. Once the strategy of ignoring inappropriate behavior is employed, it must be continued despite escalation. If not, the teacher runs the risk of intermittently reinforcing the negative behavior, thereby strengthening its occurrence. For example, if you decide to use differential attention for a student's out-of-seat behavior, but become sufficiently frustrated after the student is out of his seat for 10 minutes and respond by directing attention to the student, the behavior will be reinforced rather than extinguished. The 10 minutes of ignoring will quickly be lost in the one incident of negative attention. If the teacher shouts, "You need to down!" …the student has received the desired attention by persisting in a negative behavior.

Researchers evaluated rules, praise, and ignoring for inappropriate behavior in two Aspergers kids in a typical second-grade classroom and in one Aspergers student in a kindergarten class. The results indicated that in the absence of praise, rules and ignoring were ineffective. Inappropriate behavior decreased only after praise was added. Others have demonstrated the importance of praise in a general education classroom. Specifically, whenever teacher approval was withdrawn, disruptive behaviors increased.

Kids with Aspergers perform as well as typical kids with a continuous schedule of reinforcement, but perform significantly worse with a partial schedule of reinforcement (e.g. reinforcement is provided only sometimes), which is typically found in most classrooms. Praise is important for the development of other attributes in kids (e.g., self-esteem, school attitude, motivation toward academics, etc). In addition, the opposite is also true: A large amount of punishment can negatively affect emotional development and self-esteem.

P.S. Parents are encouraged to copy, paste and print the information above and share it with their Aspergers child's teacher(s).


•    Anonymous said... Our special Ed teacher really helped son interact in group discussions. The kids were use to ignoring my son but taught them to see his thoughts as valid while teaching him how properly give and take. Now he can join without being shutout.
•    Anonymous said... I would have loved to show this to my son's 3rd grade teacher! That lady was a piece of work!
•    Anonymous said... I have a child with that is an aspie. He is now 18 and an amazing young man. I never used negative reinforcement. They are so emotional and so fragile. I totally disagree with negative reinforcement. It is unnecessary. They want acceptment. They don't think like "normal" people. When they act out they need a hug and to be explained to that what they did was wrong. They need people and parents that understand where they are and to be ready for uncommon circumstances. They are special and need to be treated as such.

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