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


Be a Role Model: Mindset for Positive Self-Talk

As teachers and therapist of children with emotional and behavior disorders, we often encounter children who lack the skill of using positive self-talk. Like any skill, it needs to be intentionally taught and modeled. Teachers and therapists are in position to be powerful role-models in the lives of children. We can help empower them by using positive self-talk in the classroom. Affirmations, combined with the positive emotions and positive consequences that we attach to them, are a powerful way to help us and our children achieve joyful lives.

It is up to us to provide children with the necessary tools to empower themselves and overcome the negative and often self-limiting thoughts and actions that they encounter ever day. The best example we can give our students is to use social and emotional affirmation statements (self-talk) that reflect self-confidence, caring, and trust. But, in order to be successful, you have to go into every day and session with the mindset that you are going to model positive self-talk for your students and clients. By mindset I mean a class of behaviors and patterns of behavior that are intentionally performed to meet a particular outcome.

If you need some scripts for some affirmations you can model, below are just a few positive social and emotional examples you can model every day. Write them down on a small piece of paper or index card to help remind you. You and your students can modify them to meet your needs:

Social Affirmations

Good things happen to me.

I am friendly.

I am a good influence on others.

I am kind to others.

I focus on the positive.

I am helpful.

I am a good listener.

I can do it.

I make friends easily.

I play well with others.

Every problem has an answer.

Emotional Affirmations:

I am loved.

I am a loving boy/girl.

I am beautiful/handsome.

I like myself.

I feel calm and relaxed (especially when child is upset).

I love my life and have lots of fun.

I choose how I feel by the way I think and talk.

I feel happy.

This is a simple and brief description of how a self-talk intervention can be implemented. This is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as advice or as a comprehensive intervention for a particular child or situation. As always, before engaging in any any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Licensed Psychologist or Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

Who is this kid??

Have you ever watched your kids interact with friends or other adults and ask yourself, “Who is this kid?”

As our children get older they become exposed to larger group of people. Parents, at least in the earlier years, have a great influence over how, when, and with whom children can interact. However, upon entering school age they begin to make connections with people that are no longer under our influence (although many of us try hard manage that too). What effect does this have on our children’s behavior and is that okay?

From a parent point of view I think it is perfectly okay. My role is to be their guide and to help shape their decision making so they can become well adjusted adults. I can teach rules, give examples, and model acceptable behavior. I can provide consequences for good and bad behavior and have them practice and role-play. But the choice is really their’s to make.

As our children get older their behaviors increasingly come under the influence of the social groups with which they associate. Therefore certain behaviors which you might never see or hear come out when children are with their friends. Think about it, have you ever said or done things with your friends that you would never say or do with your parents? You might praise and/or punish certain behaviors when they are with you. But those same behaviors might not get praised and/or punished by their friends.

It’s okay that these social contingencies exist, it’s all part of growing up. It’s okay that my son acts differently with his friends than he does with me. We have a different relationship. However as a dad, I must also teach him the social emotional competencies that help him build positive relationships and guide him to making good decisions. The key here is providing guidance in shaping their own goal setting behaviors. We can help (not force) them to decide what they want to do with their lives, both in the short term and long term. Sounds an awful lot like providing them with choices doesn’t it?

I think it is essential to show them where the biggest payoff is. If the bigger payoff is gained by acting a certain way with their friends, then obviously their friends have the greater influence. However as parents we need to help them recognize the greater payoff is by making decisions that help them achieve their goals. A child who is frequently given choices becomes more adept at making good choices later in life when peer pressures are at their greatest. Therefore when they are put into situations over which we have no control, they will have a greater ability to make positive choices that will help them achieve short and long term goals.


What are some ways you foster positive decision-making with your kids? Please feel free to share!

The importance of asking, “why?”: It’s all in the patterns?

Have we been conditioned over the years to not ask children “why” in the classroom? I hear a lot of people say “Don’t bother asking him why he did it, he won’t know anyway.” Inexplicably, sometimes in the education setting, we are timid in following up with the question why. It seems perfectly natural to engage kids in higher order thinking when it comes to academic pursuits. But when it comes to dealing with behavior, when we do ask why, we usually expect a particular answer. Isn’t “why” really just an explanation of how the world works? If so, then children should be able to describe events as they relate to patterns.

I teach my students, and the teachers I train, that everything in life has a pattern (yes, sometimes there are exceptions, but that’s a completely different discussion). Some patterns are obvious to see, such as the alternating of even and odd numbers. Some patterns may not be so clear, like the teacher only calls on me after every student has had a chance and only if I am sitting in my seat, raising my hand, and waiting with a quiet mouth.

Many of the students I work with are not able (when I start working with them) to talk about why something happened. When I ask kids the question why I am trying to get them to identify 3 things. The task at hand is to figure out a) what is the pattern, b) am I following the pattern, and c) what do I need to do to respond in line with the pattern.

In the beginning it may take time to get the student to identify certain patterns. However just walking around we can find patterns in everyday life, the way art is placed on the walls, the way and place everyone lines up in the cafeteria.

We should give kids more credit. In the “heat of the moment” yes it is often difficult to talk about why a particular event happened. However, that does not mean that a child cannot talk about, and it certainly does not mean that a child cannot learn to talk about events. If you can get a child to look for and examine patterns in their own behavior, the behavior of others, and environmental outcomes, you can teach them to take on the perspective of others. By doing so they can learn identify why they think others respond to them in particular ways.

Eventually, students can learn to look for patterns and cues in the reactions of others and environmental events. The reactions of others become natural parts of a reinforcement and punishment history that serve as a “guide” to making behavior choices. They learn to discriminate where, when, how, and why certain behaviors should be performed. In the end, isn’t that what we want for our children anyways, to be able to use what they learned from their own observations to generate positive choices?

Don’t Squeeze the Spaghetti!

Grab a handful of cooked spaghetti and squeeze. If the spaghetti seeps out just squeeze tighter. If the spaghetti continues to seep out, don’t worry squeezing harder will eventually work. Now, if you have been able to keep the spaghetti in your hands stop reading. If you’ve managed to let the spaghetti fall out of your hand, here’s a towel to clean up the mess you have made.

Trying to maintain complete order in the classroom or at home is much like squeezing cooked spaghetti in your hands, as you squeeze tighter the spaghetti just continues to seep out. As teachers and parents we often attempt to corral all opportunities for control. However, in doing so you can unintentionally create a condition in which the child makes every attempt to regain some semblance of control in their lives.

Sometimes it feels easier to take charge and remove all opportunities for control. Yet, by attempting to exert all the power and control you unintentionally lose it. What we need to consider is the power of choices.

I recently watched a teacher tell a student everything he couldn’t do and everything he had to do, right now. For example, she told him not to leave his seat. The student’s reaction, “watch me”. I asked the teacher if I could intervene. With her permission I stepped up to him and said, “I notice you might be a bit upset, if you care to talk about it, I’m here. In the meantime, if you care to work instead that’s fine too. Let me know what you decide.” Then I walked away.

The student, apparently trying to save face, didn’t respond for a minute or so. But eventually he asked for his work assignment. I offered him the opportunity to talk during lunch and he nodded.

Using this strategy I was able to get the student to not only do what I really wanted him to do. I also got him to talk about what was truly bothering him later on. Why? Not because I made him do it, but because he felt he had the choice. I offered him some options, both of which I was perfectly fine with. Sometimes we just don’t give kids enough credit.

He could easily have chosen unspoken option C, do nothing. I would have been fine with that as well. Eventually he would want something from me. In that moment, I would come back to the problem at hand. In order to get whatever it is I can provide, I only make it available when he “fixes” the problem.

So the next time you feel the need to squeeze every ounce of control, you can provide some choices from the start, or keep a towel on hand to clean up the mess.

Social Emotional Learning: A Mindset for Teachers and Parents

While conducting staff development today on social emotional learning, I began contemplating our true purpose and goal for teaching social emotional learning. I realized that teaching social emotional wellness skills requires a certain mindset.

As parents and teachers we must maintain a mindset that social emotional learning is not about teaching children how to behave, it’s about teaching children how to belong. When a maladaptive behavior surfaces, we must recognize that behavior is only a symptom. The presenting behavior manifests itself due to one or more social emotional deficits. Once we identify that deficit we can work on the next step, conducting some functional analysis, or determining the “why”. With this information we can begin adjusting our instruction and the environment to help the child acquire the skill.

Armed with information and a sense of vision, we can go about the work of promoting social success. Every interaction we have with our children should be driven by a vision of life-long social emotional success. Every situation is an opportunity to help your children achieve that vision. We must be intentional in every moment possible to teach and model the skills necessary for children to develop a feeling that they are a part of something greater. By helping our children develop these social emotional skills, we help them learn they are not just “a part of it”, but also feel like the they are accepted and contribute to the world. In other words, to belong.