Why reward and punishment doesn’t work for children with challenging behaviour…

I see so many parents of children with Autism, ADHD, and other Global Developmental delays who tell me they can’t manage their child’s challenging behaviour. They say they have tried everything, and nothing works!

Oh my, I remember that feeling.

What they mean by that well, what I meant by that, is that i’d followed our standardised societal rules when it comes to behaviour! Reward the good and punish the bad!

Parents often say, “We’ve tried every reward chart possible; we’ve taken away all their privileges but they just don’t care. It doesn’t stop their horrendous behaviour!”

I spent years doing the same!

Then I had that light-bulb moment! If I know it doesn’t work, why am I continuing to use this strategy?”

Probably because I didn’t know what else to do, I couldn’t just let him get away with it.

If this sounds like you, then you’ll be pleased to know there is another way.

So take this as an opportunity to leapfrog my mistakes by changing your strategy and start a new chapter! But how?

Well, first let’s understand the strategy that didn’t work. The technical term for this behaviourist notion is Operational Conditioning. Which basically means, I am in charge, and you do what I tell you. When you do what I want, you’ll be rewarded but when you don’t, you’ll be punished.

Now let’s think about why that might not work for some children!

Think about the worst possible dinner you could ever be served (for me that would be cucumber, shellfish and almonds with a sprinkle of desiccated coconut – I want you to eat that dinner at the table, with everyone watching you. If you do, I’ll give you a sticker and if you don’t, I will take away the one thing in life that makes you happy (in my case that would be wine).

Are you feeling motivated?

I hear you, ‘maybe the reward should be better!’ Ok, so let’s make the reward a piece of cake or extra time in the pub!!! Well actually, it doesn’t matter how good the reward is, or how bad the punishment is, because they don’t work!

These Kids know only too well they are getting it wrong. That does not need reinforcing. The kids that always get it wrong need help, not punishment.

Ever been on a diet, vowed to get fit, or attempted dry January and failed? I’ve spent 30 years failing at that! To continually fail at something is soul-destroying.  Yet we allow our kids to fail time and time again.  If that wasn’t bad enough, we then display it on a chart on the wall, for everyone to see! And then… we punish them again! They lose their privileges, miss their break,golden time, or get detention – get sent to isolation or excluded!  No wonder why so many kids have a low self-esteem and mental health issues!

So why don’t consequences work?

Because no matter what reward or punishment you put in, these children simply don’t have the skills needed to achieve the expectation you made!

What if we changed our mindset?

What if we believed that all children, when they are able, will set out to achieve their best.  We often think our kids purposely set out to annoy us, but I have yet to meet a child who actually enjoys making themselves miserable and unpopular! Children that have meltdowns and challenging behaviour are not seeking any kind of glory, they are seeking our help!

Just like children have built in safety reflexes, they also have a built-in aspiration to achieve! Remember those smiles when they took their first steps – they are so proud to have pleased you! They want to do well!

That shows that rewards can be great, the reward of a smile, a cuddle, kind motivational words, work really well, but consequences do not, and actually, for these kids, they make it worse.

I hear you, ‘but they have to learn consequences because that’s life – they can’t break the law and get away with it. It’s not ok to smash my house up or punch people!’

Agreed, you are correct, that is not ok. But you are missing a crucial point!

The most important aspect of changing your mindset is this…

Challenging behaviour is behaviour that challenges YOU! The behaviour you see is a means to an end for your child! And is actually that safety reflex kicking in. Just like you had a strategy to deal with the behaviour (punishment or reward), your child has a strategy to keep himself/herself safe. Your child isn’t purposely kicking off to ruin your day, they are using the only way they know, to stay safe.

Trust me, there will be a perfectly logical reason your child is displaying this behaviour. Therefore, it is your job to discover the cause of the behaviour. If you eradicate the cause you will eradicate the behaviour.

Of course, that is easier said than done, I’ve been there! It’s not always possible to eradicate the cause, especially when it’s an environmental issue or involving external people, but once the trigger is identified, solutions can be created to reduce the cause.

And solutions are not punishments. Solutions need to be achievable for both you and your child and solutions must be solved by working together with your child.

Theses children need your help to find a solution because they lack the skills needed to come to it themselves.  So instead of punishing your child for getting it wrong, teach them how to solve the problem. Give them the tools they need to problem solve.

Children with Autism are rigid thinkers, they find it difficult to see other people’s viewpoints. They may not be emotionally attached to the problem. They often say they don’t care about the other person and are only happy when they get their way, but that’s ok. They don’t need to own someone else’s problem; they just need to understand that there is a conflict between two people that needs to be solved.

Let me give you an example of an instant mindset shift:

Let’s just say I’ve just sat down to watch Strictly Come Dancing, and Aiden comes in and turns the tv over because he wants to watch the X-Factor.

I could go with the consequence option like 99% of society would.

I’m watching Strictly Aiden, please turn it back over. He’ll say no, and I’ll move on to a consequence. Which will then escalate. The chances are, he’ll throw the remote at the tv and begin to scream and shout as if I’m the worst parent in the world. I’ll end up upset and say things I don’t mean, as will he,


I could choose to pick my battles (as this isn’t the end of the world) and allow him to watch X-factor,


I could choose to identify this as a problem and teach him the skills needed to solve a problem.

Being a rigid thinker generally means he won’t easily think of anyways to solve the problem, so this is where I suggest some ideas, but they need to have positive outcomes for both me and Aiden and ultimately Aiden needs to agree to the outcome.

I could suggest; we watch half of one show and half of the other (which would never work, but it’s an idea!) or we could record one show and watch it after, or you could quit watching X-Factor because it’s rubbish! (it’s an idea!) There are probably some other options and he might come up with some after my bad ones.

Ideas can be trialled and if they don’t work, some more can be trialled. Work with your child, they will want a solution just as much as you.

This way of thinking has much better results long term and actually teaches your child the skills they are lacking. If this were me starting out with this new mind set, in this situation, I would have gone for the ‘pick my battles’ option. I do not have rigid thinking and know I can record the program and it’s not the end of the world. Equally, trying to teach a skill while Aiden’s favourite program was on, would not have worked.

That doesn’t mean he has got away with it, it simply means we can revisit this when he is calm and regulated. It also means we can avoid another meltdown if this situation were to arise again.

So just to explain the difference between behaviour and lack of ability.

The expectation I put on Aiden was to understand that we have different viewpoints. Aiden lacked the ability to understand my viewpoint and how his actions affected me, he also lacked the ability to shift from one mindset to another. Why would I punish him for something he doesn’t understand?

I am not suggesting that Aiden wouldn’t have understood that screaming, shouting and throwing was wrong. He definitely knows that, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that suddenly his plans had changed, he would have been fuelled with emotion and he would have been unable to find the appropriate reasoning skills needed to solve the problem.

All challenging behaviour is predictable, which means you can work on the skills needed to combat this pro-actively. Prioritise what to work on first and use the ‘pick your battles’ option for the ones to work on in the future. Equally, if you’re caught short, choose to avoid a meltdown at all cost, until you can work out what the actual cause is, because punishment will only make it worse FOR EVERYONE.

If you want to understand more about this mindset, I recommend you read the Explosive Child or Lost at School by Dr Ross W Greene.  This change in mindset, my change in mindset, has revolutionised the relationship I have with my son.

One thought on “Why reward and punishment doesn’t work for children with challenging behaviour…

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

A WordPress.com Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: