Friday, March 4, 2011

Defense of behaviorism, Part II

Yesterday, I outlined how behaviorism can be congruent with gentle discipline, noting that a good relationship with parents and peers is generally enough of a reward to stimulate good behavior. This is not always true. I believe there are cases where a child needs to be trained using tangible rewards or immediate punishments, usually in instances of disability. With that sentence, I realize I have stepped onto a minefield.
First, disabilities. Many contend that all children are created equal and we shouldn't label them. I agree all children have equal value, but not all have equal skills. When these skill deficits impact a child's ability to function, I consider it a disability. A child who cannot tolerate typical levels of light and noise, for example, or one whose anger management skills are nonexistent can be considered to have a disability. Both of these children may, as a coping mechanism, injure themselves or others. I think having labels such as autism and bipolar disorder helps adults know how to respond when the child is in a crisis.
Second, training. In rare circumstances, it is OK to first address the behavior before addressing the underlying need. If a child starts banging his head hard enough to potentially cause brain damage when he is angry, it is more important to stop that behavior immediately than to address the multiple triggers for his anger. Once the behavior is under control, perhaps by giving him a cracker for every five minutes without head-banging, then one can begin the slow work of identifying triggers and teaching positive coping skills for each situation. The child's safety must come first.
As with yesterday's post, my point is that behaviorism is not evil and can, judiciously, be used for great good.


  1. I agree with both this and the previous post. I'm still working out my ideas on discipline, but I'm realizing more and more that I shouldn't think of misbehavior as "being bad" or "the child's fault." Instead, it's usually for some reason or other that I don't understand -- maybe just that they aren't developmentally ready to do what I would like.

    On the other hand, as you say, sometimes it can be acceptable to try to change the behavior first -- not judgmentally or with blame, but for a child's safety and wellbeing.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. It's a sensitive topic for a lot of parents. I'm glad I was able to provide some food for thought!