Back it Up: Positive Practice in Action

20130104-162714.jpgUnder most circumstances, I recommend positive reinforcement strategies to foster behavior. Punishment is the application of or the removal of an event or stimulus that reduces the future frequency of a behavior. It has been used to reduce disruptive, annoying, and self-injurious behaviors. The term punishment has come to take on a negative connotation due its misuse over the years. However, when used correctly and ethically, certain forms of punishment have been shown to be very effective changing behavior.

Today I’m going to talk about what I call “Back it Up”. This is a term I use when I want a student (or my own kids) to “fix” a problem behavior, usually one that creates a problem for others. It is based on a behavior analytic procedure called overcorrection. Overcorrection consists of restitutional overcorrection and/or positive practice overcorrection. It combines the reductive effects of punishment and the educative effects of positive practice. I’m sure many of you have heard the stories of the child caught smoking and then having to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes. The difference here is that you want the person to practice the correct behavior. Clearly they already know how do it incorrectly, so I wouldn’t have the child practice the incorrect one.

“Back it Up” can occur in several forms. One form is restitution, which is having the person do what a normal individual might do to correct a situation. A child knocks over a another child’s toys, he picks them up. Restitution is intended to help the individual experience the effort needed to restore the damage and may cause them not to repeat the behavior because of the inconvenience of correcting or rectifying the situation. This may cause the person to realize that time and effort are needed to correct irresponsible action. Combine this with a caring atmoshpere and the person may decide to take responsibility for his/her actions. This makes this form of punishment better than other forms because of the intention to teach appropriate behavior and responsibility for ones actions. This is more of a treatment package because it’s not solely a punishment procedure, rather it’s a combination of positive punishment and positive reinforcement. You’re adding an aversive event, having to clean up the toys (punishment), but also providing positive feedback for doing it correctly (positive reinforcement). In Love and Logic terms this is referred to as the Energy Drain.

Another form of “Back it Up” is restitutional overcorrection, where the person corrects the product of their misbehavior by restoring the situation to not just as-good-as, but a better state from before the event. If student were to write on his desk, cleaning the desktop would be considered restitution. However, having the student clean all of the desktops in the classroom is restitutional overcorrection. During a tantrum a student might knock over a chair. Restitutional overcorrection would be that the student would then have to straighten all the chairs in the classroom. If the student yells an insult, he may then have to give a compliment to everyone in class, or give several compliments to the offended person.

The third form of “Back it Up” is positive practice overcorrection. In this situation, the person practices an activity using the appropriate desired behavior. Repeatedly placing trash into the trash container. A student who repeatedly enters a classroom loudly might be required to practice the appropriate steps of entering the classroom and being seated. Part of the intervention is predicated on having the person do what a normal individual might do to avoid the situation. As part of a debrief, I might say, “We could do it this way once, or we can practice doing it many times” (notice I don’t say how many times, this is a deviation from the literature which supports setting a number or length of time). A student who repeatedly hugs people without consent, might need to practice asking and accepting being told no.

Recommendations for implementing a “Back it Up” intervention:

1. Continuously and systematically monitoring in order to provide prompts during restitution or positive practice. When behaviors occur at a high rates, differential reinforcement procedures such as DRO, DRI may be a better option, instead of overcorrection. Whenever possible reinforce incompatible behavior, or behaviors that cannot occur at the same time as the problem behavior. (i.e. having hands in lap cannot happen at same time as scratching you)

2. The person may, and can often times be expected to, refuse to cooperate at first. They may be disruptive such as cry, scream, and whine or even escalate to physically aggressive behaviors. This can be reduced by being prepared, offering limited structured choices, or having students setting overcorrection as part of a goal for changing their behavior. The use of positive verbal prompts and authority statements as well as providing time-out first or during overcorrection helps to minimize disruptions. Consistently applying the intervention helps reduce problems in the long term.

3. Selecting and implementing restitutional and positive practice activities can be difficult at times. Considerations must be made for the behavior of concern, the environment, time, availability of staff, materials, etc.

4. If not careful, overcorrection procedures can inadvertently increase the frequency, duration, or intensity of an inappropriate behavior as well as collateral behaviors. An initial increase of behavior or other similar behaviors is sometimes likely due to reinforcing effects created by the amount of attention associated with these interventions. Make sure to provide minimal positive feedback and attention during overcorrection. Also, be sure that this is not the only opportunity the person has to access social forms of reinforcement.

5. Make the practice as closely related to the type of misbehavior as possible. A child may break an item in the classroom and may not be able to replace it, but he could pick up the pieces. He doesn’t just sit against the wall at recess to “think about it”.

6. Keep observation notes and records, data is essential to determining the success or failure of your intervention.

7. Have I mentioned the word positive (not to be confused with reinforcing)? An intervention that is negative and aversive may reduce problematic behaviors. However, the chances of teaching new replacement behaviors are less likely since punishment procedures alone do not teach behaviors. There is also a risk of new misbehaviors or an increase escape/avoidance behaviors as a result of aversive interventions. Remember our interventions should never cause harm.

I have used positive practice to train students to use their calming strategies. For example, when they practice using their strategies in a contrived “time out” or self initiated break situation, they receive acknowledgement and positive attention for doing so. A student might use this as they feel a problem is about to occur or they might use it to stop a violent behavior. This strategy could be used prior to an event and help prevent other, and possibly more aversive interventions. It’s also great as a follow up to an apology. An apology is more readily accepted when you “Back it Up”!

This is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as advice. As always, before engaging in any any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., &; W. L. Heward. (2007) Applied behavior analysis Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Education Inc.

Love and Logic


Mindsets for Teachers of Children with Emotional and Behavior Disorders: #4 Creativity is Vital to Survival

Creativity is vital to survival.

It’s easy to get upset when an administrator suspended our students or assigns them to alternative education placements. I would go as far as to say that it offends me. I take it personally because I feel there’s something that we could have done something better. We could have intervened quicker, provided better support for the student, or come up with a consequence that would have a more lasting positive effect than letting them get to stay home or in any other way allow them to escape the problem.

Talk to my students daily about the goal of coming to school. The main goal obviously is to learn right? Therefore every behavior they engage in must be in some way related to accomplishing that goal. As the teacher it is my duty to make sure I help them learn the necessary skills so they can attain that goal every day. My function is not to make them do it, it’s to teach them how to do it for themselves. But these kids don’t want to stay in school, right? So how do we do this? Often times, creativity in the moment is the key to survival.

Let’s think of this scenario. Michael is a third grade student who detests math. Every day during math, he yells out, talks to other students, and taps his pencil loudly. The teacher in her frustration calls for the assistant principal, who comes down and takes Michael to the office, talks to him for a while, then sends him back to class an hour later. The next day, as math class begins, Michael starts his routine of yelling out and acting a compete fool. This time Michael is escorted to the office and is told to sit on a bench until he can be seen by the assistant principal and is given work assignments to complete while he waits. Two hours later, the assistant principal calls Michael into the office. Not only has Michael not completed any assignments, he hasn’t started a single one. When the AP talks to him, Michael comes out with every reason he couldn’t do the math work; he was sick, his head hurt, his poison ivy rash made his arm itch so much he couldn’t write, and his dog died so he couldn’t concentrate on the work. He was playing the sympathy card now and it appeared to be working. The assistant principal got Michael to admit he was disrupting the classroom, had him make an apology to the teacher and sent him back to class for time served. However, the next day it happens again, only this time Michael gets two hours away from class and in-school-suspension for the remainder of the day. The behavior continues when Michael returns the following day and this time he gets in-school-suspension for two days. Do you see a trend here? Michael kept playing the hand he’d been dealt, and it was paying off every time, each time with increased pay off. Michael was using his creativity to avoid having to do work and no one was to catching on. This is an example of a time when we need to out manipulate the manipulation. Michael has worked out the system. If he acts up he will be removed from the demand. Give everyone a diversion story and he gains sympathy, gain sympathy and he will never be held accountable.

However armed with another weapon I am determined to out manipulate this manipulation. When you rationally detach yourself from the crisis, you can begin a situation analysis of this problem. We have determined that Michael is desperately trying to get out of work and learning. Let’s try to give him the opposite of that. The opposite of avoiding the demand would be to maintain it. Eventually, Michael will reach a point when he will want something. I’m guessing that he has a strong desire to want to go home on time today. I’m also guessing that if he doesn’t go home on time today, things are going to be very inconvenient for him. You see I listen to lunch time conversation and I am aware of the new game console that he just got this past weekend, and he really wants to play it as soon as he gets home. Getting home late will really put a damper on that plan, what a bummer. I can empathize with that. Now you have a mutual problem. You both have to stay after school in order to get what you need accomplished. Being the rationally detached adult, I realize this situation can be manipulated to my advantage and the student will hopefully learn something in the end. I’m accustomed to staying after school, it’s really not an inconvenience for me. But in order for an intervention like this to work I have to be able to make a connection. I need to convey some empathy here. I want to show that I’m put out, but that I’m more than willing to make the sacrifice for this noble cause. At least that is what I want him to believe. I want him to know I can and will stick it out as long as I need to. He has the choice to minimize the damage and you still get what you want in the end. Here some creative problem-solving and collaborating can lead you down the path of crisis resolution.

Recently I was working with a 4th grader in an E/BD classroom. We were working on an assignment on measurement. He did wonderful, not only did he learn the concept he was able to expand on it and relate information from his own life. This student is not known for being loquacious, so it was cause for celebration. Earlier he had shown me a lima bean seed he had germinated in wet paper towel. He was very excited that it had grown so much and even sprouted a single leaf. He was however a little disappointed that he could not plant his lima bean sprout since he did not have any dirt. What a coincidence, I live not even a mile from the school this child attends, and it just so happens that I had an open bag of potting soil at my house. Do you see where I am going with this? I asked the teacher if it was okay to fetch a small amount of potting soil for this student to plant his sprout. After all, he was maintaining on-task behaviors, displaying appropriate manners, had good self-control, was engaged in learning and completing assignments, all at once I might add. I asked him if he would like to have some dirt to plant his sprout with and he smiled one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen. Assuming that was a yes, I told him as soon as he asked, I would go and get some soil from my house. I pretended to anxiously wait by whistling and tapping my foot. After a few seconds he asked “Can you go get me some dirt to plant my seed while I do my work?” I responded with “Since you asked so nicely and have been doing all your work and have done such a good job working with me, ABSOLUTELY, thank you so much for asking!” (I have a tendency to be a little bit of a ham in the classroom. Try it, it works.) I immediately left and was back in 15 minutes with a large zip-lock bag full of potting soil. My only regret is that I did not get the chance to stay to see him plant that seed. But I did stop by the next morning to see it. He was very proud of it, as was I.

What did I learn from this, dirt is a good reinforcer? Well no, as much as I would like to think that, I wish it were that simple. Reinforcers do not have to be limited to praise or prizes. Sometimes activity reinforcers serve as extremely powerful reinforcers as much as any prize or praise. Sometimes the spontaneity and creativity of a reinforcer can have great value, especially when it appeals to a child’s interest at that moment. What I liked the most was that he was not going into a corner and zoning out for a few minutes for a break. This was an activity that not only peaked his interest, but allowed him to engage in learning while he was doing it. Obviously, I don’t plan to drop everything and run to my house or the store every time a student does something great or asks for a reward. But I have taught this student that rewards can be learning activities. Many times you already have the materials you need for activity reinforcers, if you take a look around your classroom. They can be cheap and often times require little effort to provide. You can provide them as individual as well as group activities. When it comes to activity reinforcement, find out what your students like, be creative, and be spontaneous.