Can Rewards and Consequences Make Kids’ Behavior Challenges Worse?
“Martina,” a 7-year-old in a mixed inclusion classroom, wanted to let her teacher know that she was feeling anxious, so she tried to connect with her, repeatedly grabbing at her arm and shirt. The teacher had been trained to ignore “negative” behaviors, so the more Martina grabbed, the less attention she gave her. Her strategy was to reward positive behaviors and provide consequences for negative ones.
Finally, interpreting Martina’s actions as a learned maladaptive behavior, the teacher asked an aide to stand outside the door with her to help her calm down. But instead of calming down, Martina got so upset that she wet herself—a signal that her autonomic nervous system was experiencing increased levels of distress. The teacher’s well-meaning attempt to solve a problem only exacerbated it.
Over several decades as a child psychologist, I have seen this kind of scenario play out again and again. I have worked with many hundreds of children with behavioral challenges—some from loving and stable homes, some in the foster system, some biological, some adopted. For many of them, this sort of traditional discipline based on rewards and consequences simply doesn’t work. Some children end up with diagnoses such as ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and traditional behavior-management approaches used with many of them not only prove ineffective, they exacerbate the problem.
Why don’t rewards and consequences work for certain types of behavioral challenges? Because approaches that focus on managing surface behaviors aren’t necessarily grounded in current neuroscience and our understanding of emotional development. When we shift to an approach that is grounded in neuroscience, we find that children’s challenging behaviors decrease when we properly meet their relational, emotional, and physiological needs.
In other words, when we properly appreciate a child’s unique needs, we can focus our attention on the causes and triggers of the behavior challenges rather than continually trying to alter the end-product, the challenging behaviors.
Approaches that emphasize rewards and consequences are built on the assumption that a child is acting intentionally, either aiming to win a response from adults or trying get out of doing something. But that oversimplification of behaviors misses an entire category of behaviors that are not purposeful: those “bottom-up” behaviors that reflect reactions to a child’s subconscious triggers and experiences. When we react to these behaviors by offering negative consequences, we often provoke even more challenging behaviors, and most importantly we inadvertently punish a child’s unintentional stress responses. This is likely why 50,000 preschoolers are suspended each year.
When we expand our understanding and view what we had seen as “bad” behavior instead as a child’s attempts to feel better, as instinctive bids for human connection, it changes everything. When we examine what is underlying the behavior, Instead of seeing discipline as the only option, we can truly “see” the child. Instead of punishing the child, we can appreciate the behavior for what it’s telling us about what the child needs from his caresharers.
The clearest pathway to success is to increase a child’s felt sense of relational security.
When we understand how the autonomic nervous system works, we can place behavior problems in proper context. We can recognize a wide range of triggers, such as thoughts, physical sensations, fears, shame, or embarrassment, can be the causes of a child’s unexpected and challenging behaviors. When we see beyond the behaviors to these causes, we expand our options to include strategies that respect each individual’s neurodevelopment. And we promote relational safety and security, the qualities that our behaviorally challenged children need most of all.