Category Archives: ABS Staff

Decreasing Problem Behavior

Decreasing Problem Behavior

When and How to use Punishment Appropriately
by Christa Dalton, BS BCaBA

Punishment is often overused, or used inappropriately without understanding the adverse side effects.   Today, I want to show when it is appropriate to use a punishment procedure and ways to implement it that can reduce these adverse side effects.

To use punishment effectively and appropriately we need to first understand what punishment is and isn’t. Punishment is any environmental event immediately following a behavior that decreases the future frequency of that behavior. Punishers include both adding an aversive item/event or removing a pleasurable item/event.


  • Every time Timmy bites his nails, he is given a coloring page to     complete and the frequency of his nail biting goes down.
  • When Kayla hits she is immediately placed in a time out chair for 1 minute and the frequency of hitting goes down.


  • Every time Joe yells he is reprimanded by his mom saying “No! Stop yelling” and the frequency of his yelling stays the same.
  • When Jane throws items she is asked to pick the item up and the frequency of her throwing goes up.

Notice that the frequency of Joe and Jane’s inappropriate behaviors stayed the same or went up. This means that the reprimand and being required to pick up items are not punishers for Joe and Jane. They may be aversive events, but they are not punishers. This demonstrates one of the most important things to consider when attempting to decrease problem behaviors. It is critical that we understand why a child is engaging in a particular behavior. Perhaps Jane would throw items when she was asked to sit down and do her homework, and the requirement to pick the item up postponed homework time. Thus picking up the item would actually function as a reinforcer. Once you understand why they are engaging in a problem behavior you can choose a punishment procedure that can actually be effective.

If you choose to implement a punishment procedure you’ll need to be aware of the possible side effects these procedures can have. These could include:

  • Escape and/or Avoidance: These are behaviors that either end an aversive event (escape) or postpone or prevent an aversive event from happening (avoidance). These behaviors can take many forms and can become more of a problem than the original problem behavior. Examples of these behaviors are; lying, cheating, hiding, truancy, etc.
  • Counter Aggression: This includes any aggressive behavior (i.e. throwing items, hitting, kicking, hostile comments, videos or comments posted on the internet, etc). These aggressive behaviors often generalize between different environments. A child could be punished in one environment (at school) and have aggressive behaviors in several or all environments (at home, on the bus, on the playground, etc).
  • Behavioral Contrast: This effect of punishment refers to when punishment is only being delivered in one environment, the behavior will decrease in the punished condition and increase in the unpunished conditioned. For example, before introducing any intervention Sally drew on the wall 5 times a day on average. Dad begins to punish this behavior and her drawing on the wall reduces to once or twice a day in Dad’s presence. Mom doesn’t punish the behavior and Sally draws on the wall 10 times a day in her presence. Now, Sally is drawing on the wall 11 or 12 times a days.

Despite these adverse side effects of punishment, punishment continues to be one of the most common ways a handling problem behavior. Why is this? The answer is simple. People only use punishment when someone is engaging in a behavior that is aversive to them. They want that person to stop engaging in that behavior, otherwise you wouldn’t be punishing it. Typically the immediate (though often not the long term) effect of punishment is they immediately stop engaging in the aversive behavior. This means that your delivery of punishment in reinforcing to your punishing behavior. The aversive behavior was removed. Let’s look at an example, paying attention to mom’s behavior.

Antecedent: Devin begins to hit his mom.
Mom’s behavior: Mom takes away Devin’s favorite toy.
Consequence: Devin immediately stops hitting.

The next time Devin starts hitting (or yelling, pinching, throwing things, etc) what is mom likely to do? She will probably take away Devin’s favorite toy. It “worked” before, even if it was only temporary. This means that we need to be careful before using a punishment program. We need to make sure that we have decided to use it because it is the best decision for the child we are working with, not because it’s reinforcing to us.

However, there are times when punishment is appropriate to use (when someone’s behavior is more dangerous to themselves or others than the possible side effects of punishment would be or when other positive procedures have been ruled out as ineffective, are some examples when punishment should be considered). When we decide that a punishment procedure is appropriate, there are ways to lessen the undesirable effects. These include combining punishment with other reinforcing procedures.

Any behavior that occurs more than once is being reinforced in some way (if it wasn’t reinforced there would be no reason to engage in the behavior a second time). This means that when you add a punishment program you need to recognize that you will be competing against a reinforcer. Any time you use a punishment procedure, it it critical that you combine it with other procedures that focus on changing the way your child can access that reinforcer, or reduces the motivation to access that reinforcer. Some of the procedures that can be used in combination with punishment are:

Extinction: withholding the reinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior. Remember how we talked about how critical it is to understand what is maintaining problem behavior? Jane get’s out of doing homework when she has to pick up thrown items. It’s possible to make the behavior of throwing items lose all value by using an extinction procedure. No matter how many items Jane throws, she cannot get up from the table until she has finished her homework. By combining this with a punishment procedure, it’s possible to make throwing items aversive to Jane. Now, when Jane throws an item, not only is she not allowed to get out of homework, but she is also given an extra problem to complete for every item she throws.

Differential Reinforcement: putting one behavior on extinction, while simultaneously reinforcing a different behavior. Let’s continue using the example of Jane, one way that we could use differential reinforcement would be to allow Jane a 2 minute break away from her homework every time she requests a break, but continue to require her to complete her homework even when she throws items. Thus, throwing items is under extinction while requests for a break are simultaneously being reinforced.

Non-contingent Reinforcement: presenting a known reinforcer on a consistent timed basis (every 5 minutes, or every hour, etc) regardless of the chid’s behavior. For an example, John’s screaming behavior has been maintained by attention he receives from parents and caregivers. To use non-contingent reinforcement, John’s parents and caregivers would start giving John attention every 15 minutes, regardless of what he was doing during that time. This attention would reduce John’s motivation to scream for attention because he is being satiated with attention.

In conclusion, there are several ways to use punishment appropriately and effectively. However, it is critical to understand how to use punishment and what to expect when using punishment. If you feel that a punishment procedure would be beneficial for your child, please talk with your consultant. They can help determine what punishment procedures are likely to be effective, as well as provide other options to help your child progress.

Christa Dalton, BS BCaBA


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward W. L., (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Vargas, J.S. (2013). Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Rutledge.

Spectrum Academy Turkey Trot 2014

Spectrum Academy‘s 2014 Turkey Trot had over 1000 registrants!  Perhaps the new Pleasant Grove branch had something to do with this? At any rate, the weather was grand (in spite of the snow on top of the Oquirrhs in the background of some pictures) and it was great to see lots of folks at our booth which Shandra and Jessica hosted:

Shandra at the ABS booth

Shandra at the ABS booth

Several Alternative Behavior Strategies staff volunteered (Emily Wassink, Thomas Dunbar) and others raced (Joe Dixon, Gretchen Krebs, Heather Dillon, Emily Pitt); however, I didn’t get good pictures of them during the race but there are lots of race photos online.

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Music Therapy and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

What is Music Therapy?

“Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”   (, “What is Music Therapy”)

A favorite movement song:  “The Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” (try combining the last verse with “sea, chop, knee” instead of adding the foot)

Music Therapists must complete a bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy, which includes courses in psychology, human development, anatomy, special education, and core music classes. After coursework and music proficiency tests have been completed at the university level, they must complete a 6 month internship (1200 hours of clinical work), and pass a board certification exam.

Music Therapists work in a variety of settings including hospitals, mental health centers, geriatric facilities, hospice, special needs, etc. A music therapist conducts an assessment and develops a treatment plan that includes goals and objectives. Data is taken throughout the course of treatment that provides for ongoing assessment. Target goal areas may include communication, social skills, cognition, emotional regulation, behavior modification, and motor skills. Music is often performed live (usually on guitar, piano, or other accompanying instrument) in order to meet the needs of the client in the moment. Singing, improvisation, movement to music, instrument playing experiences, and songwriting are some of the techniques that are employed to meet these goals.

About the Author

My name is Lindsey Green. I am a board certified music therapist (MT-BC). I received my degree from Utah State University and completed my music therapy internship at Hartvigsen School in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2013. I love working with individuals with special needs and seeing the growth and development they achieve!

I have worked as a Behavior Interventionist for Alternative Behavior Strategies since February 2014. My job is to go into homes (usually for two to three hours at a time) and implement the ABA programming that has been created by Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA). They have already conducted assessments and determined what programming is best suited to meet the needs of the individual child.

I am careful not to term what I do with music in ABA sessions “music therapy” because I did not create a music therapy treatment plan for them. However, as I implement the BCBA’s programming, I often incorporate music and music therapy techniques to enhance the sessions for the child.

How I use Music in ABA Sessions

Music is a powerful tool because it occurs in the moment, is often predictable, and stimulates numerous areas of the brain as it is being processed. Music experiences generally address various domains of development simultaneously. I will attempt to categorize them and focus on only a few. I use music in sessions to work on cognitive skills, social skills, and to maintain attention.

Cognitive Skills

This has especially proved helpful in teaching phone numbers or addresses. One of the kids I worked with had a program to learn his address. By putting it to a song, he was able to remember it within a day.   In this case, I just made up my own short song and sang it with him a few times. I included the discriminative stimulus that was written into his program in the song so that he would generalize better when I did move to a verbal cue (versus the sung cue).

See the resource section below for a website geared toward teaching academic curriculum concepts.

Social Skills

Instruments, such as the guitar or harmonica, are fun to bring in to the sessions occasionally. They provide a sense of novelty to the child that facilitates social interactions with me as the facilitator. Instruments can also provide sensory exploration. One of my younger clients likes to feel the strings of the guitar, either by strumming them or just running his fingers along them.   Sometimes I will put his feet on the body of the guitar so he can feel the vibrations through it. These are all ways of facilitating social interactions.   In another session, the child was playing by himself and not engaging with me. I started singing (improvising) about what he was doing as he played. He then started doing other things to see if I would also sing about those, thus creating a social interaction game.

Movement to music provides a great way for kids to have a break from more formal ABA work while still working on social awareness and listening skills. In my experience, the funnier the song, the more engagement you’ll get from the child.   If you have a group of children, turn-taking with instruments can also be incorporated.

Some movement songs require the child to use their imagination, while others involve following a leader that comes up with original motor movements (another opportunity for turn-taking). This requires the child to watch a peer and imitate them.

Most often, I incorporate movement songs in “mock circle time” with parents, siblings, and peers that might be visiting.   During this time, I am charting on goals such as hand raising to answer questions and sitting quietly/ attending to the teacher. In these mock circle times, I choose to incorporate a hello song, a story (with questions about the content), and then sing favorite songs while I play the guitar, take turns with instruments/ imitating peers, or do movement to music.

See the resources section below for some of my favorite movement songs.

Maintaining Attention

Elements of the music can be modified in the moment to elicit different responses from the child. Maybe they are tuning out temporarily. At that time, a music therapist might change an element of the music (volume, speed, style, key, etc.) in order to cue the child that there is something changing. The child might then “wake up” from his tuning out moment and reengage in the experience.

The skill of improvising musically/ vocally often comes in handy. When working one-on-one with a child, a music therapist would base the speed and style of the song upon what the child is doing at that time. For instance, if the child has a lot of energy, the tempo of the song might be faster; if the child is in more of a lounging mood, the speed might start slower.


I have been impressed by the progress that can be achieved as these children are involved with ABA therapy. The style of teaching and methods employed by the staff at Alternative Behavior Strategies can positively influence the child’s rate of learning. In my experience, music added to the structure of ABA programming enhances the learning experience for the child. I hope you will be able to incorporate some of the techniques mentioned in this article.


Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet from– songs for teaching academic curriculum concepts

Movement Songs for Children – compiled by the director of Harmony Music Therapy in Salt Lake City; an excellent blog with ideas for using music

My favorite movement songs: “The Goldfish” – Laurie Berkner; “Animal Action” – Greg and Steve; “Pokey Bear,” ““The Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” (try combining the last verse with “sea, chop, knee” instead of adding the foot)