How to Avoid "Negative Reinforcement": Tips for Parents of Children with ASD


Negative reinforcement requires the child to work for the removal of an in-place, unpleasant consequence. The child'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 child works to distance himself from an aversive consequence.

Negative reinforcement is often used by parents to manage problem behaviors in their child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger’s (AS). Teachers inadvertently pay attention to the child who may not be complying and withdraw their attention contingent on the child's compliance. Surprisingly, this strengthens rather than weakens the noncompliant behavior.

The next time a similar situation occurs, the child again will not comply until confronted with the aversive consequence (i.e. the parent’s attention). Negative reinforcement is often seductive and coercive for moms and dads. It works in the short run, but in the long run, is likely to strengthen rather than weaken the undesirable behavior.
 
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Behaviors that in-and-of themselves may not be negative become negative reinforcers when paired with certain events. For example, the parent approaching her child who is not doing his homework becomes a negative reinforcer, even though the action itself (i.e., the parent walking up to the child) does not have a negative connotation.

Researchers found that negative reinforcement was rated by parents as the most frequently used behavior intervention. Kids with HFA 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 parent, are using negative reinforcement, pay attention to your child until the homework or chore is completed. Although this too is negative reinforcement, it teaches the child 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, when homework is to be completed, you may move your child's study area to the room you will be in 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 parent ignores the child engaged in an ‘off-task’ activity, but pays attention immediately when he or she begins working.

Many parents avoid interaction with their youngster when she is ‘on-task’ for fear of interrupting her train of thought. It is important, however, to reinforce the child when working so that a pattern of working to earn positive reinforcement rather than working to avoid negative reinforcement is developed.

Moms and dads 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 the child is ‘off-task’ and disturbing his sibling, 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 kids with HFA and AS. Many factors other than parent-attention maintain and influence child behavior.
 
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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 parent runs the risk of intermittently reinforcing the negative behavior, thereby strengthening its occurrence.

For example, if you decide to use differential attention for your child's out-of-seat behavior while at the dinner table, but become sufficiently frustrated after he is out of his seat for 10 minutes and respond by directing attention to him, 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 parent shouts, "You need to sit down!" …the child has received the desired attention by persisting in a negative behavior.

Researchers have evaluated rules, praise, and ignoring for inappropriate behavior in kids on the autism spectrum. Inappropriate behavior decreases only after praise is added. These “special needs” kids 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 homes.

Praise is important for the development of other attributes (e.g., self-esteem, general 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.


More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
 

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