“Consequences” Doesn’t Mean “Punishment” in ABA

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34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4)

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Hi, it’s Anne with KPS4Parents. And I’m here again with one of our Quick-Fix videos, and today’s topic is consequences don’t mean punishment in ABA. And, what I want to focus on is a problem that I keep encountering in the field. And even though I’m able to successfully deal with it on a child-by-child basis, the systemic issue doesn’t seem to be going away. And so I think it’s something that all of us collectively need to be working on, just to make sure that the legal and scientific principles that apply are actually being applied in that our children are benefiting from the application of both.

And so I want to just get into this today. And hopefully, if you have any questions, of course, post comments, direct messaged us, send us an email, whatever, to ask your questions of us. And we’ll be happy to answer them to the degree that we can and refer you to other resources. But let’s go ahead and get into this.

So there’s two key considerations here that we really need to think about. And one of it is the legal side of it. The other side is the science side of it. And in terms of the legalities of it, it really I want to talk about what the law requires in terms of applying the science. And because that’s something that doesn’t get enough attention, I think in special education, but it’s at the heart of what the issues [are] that I encounter regularly.

So I know I brought up this particular piece of regulation in our other videos and in other posts and things we’ve done, but it’s because it’s so important. And it certainly is applicable here. And so I want to just recap it, and it’s Title 34, Code of the Federal Regulations, Section 300.320(a)(4). And specifically, what we want to look at, is this is the the part of the regulations that describe what’s supposed to go into an IEP. And, by no means is this everything that’s supposed to be going into an IEP. This is the part I want to focus on with respect to the issue I’m raising right now.

Basically, what this particular regulations requires, is that, in the IEP, you’ve got a statement of the services that the child is going to get; the specialized academic instruction, as well as the related services like speech and language, transportation, whatever. All of it has to be delivered according to the peer-reviewed research to the degree that is practicable.

And I don’t want to belabor the point of what “practicable” is supposed to mean, because honestly, there is no legal or professional standard. You can basically take the word to mean that you know that it can actually be done; you know that it’s achievable within the school setting. And so, when you’re talking about services that a child might need that are scientifically based, it’s specific to what’s going to give them equal access to education as that given to their peers who do not have disabilities, and so that’s what we’re focusing on here.

There has to be a scientific basis for the interventions being given. It has to be an evidence-based program. You just can’t have people in there making stuff up and saying, “Oh, yeah, this will work.” No! You need to be able to use stuff that has been proven to work, and is supported by evidence. That’s basically what 34 CFR, Sec. 300.320(a)(4) means; it’s that you’re applying the known science of what has been proven to work in order to teach children.

And that that shouldn’t be that complicated, but in this day and age of science denial and an abandonment of the rule of law, usually by the same individuals, it becomes a problem, especially if they’re employed within the education system. That’s why I keep, I think, running into this is because we definitely do have those folks who are deeply entrenched, and part of, you know, reforming public education is to get those people out of there.

So let’s talk about the applicable science, now that we know the law requires the science to be applied, and we actually know which law requires the science to be applied. Let’s talk about what the science actually is, when you’re talking about this terminology.

And so in this instance, we’re talking about Applied Behavioral Analysis now. ABA has become somewhat controversial in special education, because a lot of people don’t really understand what it is, least of all judges who try these cases.

And so let’s be clear on what ABA is. ABA is not a behavior program. ABA is not a intervention for children with autism. ABA is a science that applies to anything that behaves. That could be sea slugs; that could be computer programs; that could be your mother in law; t could be anything. It’s anything that behaves. You can use Applied Behavioral Analysis to figure out why a behavior has happened and the function that it serves. It renders behavior down to ones and zeros.

And so, the “one” is to get something and the “zero” is to get away from something or to escape something. And so, there’s only two sides to any behavior: acquire/attain or escape/avoid. That having been said, how do we figure out what’s happening, whether it’s an escape of behavior or an attainment behavior?

And so, one of the methods that’s commonly used in ABA is called ABC data collection. And this, in special education, is usually where I see things go immediately off the rails, when you’re talking about behavioral interventions for kids with special needs; that this ABC data collection is skewed because people are not properly using the terms as they’re meant to be used.

According to the peer reviewed research … according to the applicable science … everybody seems to get the “A” and the “B” of ABC, right, because there’s nothing that might contradict it or conflict with it. There’s not alternative definitions of these terms otherwise being bandied about in public education.

But when you get to the word “consequence,” in the public education setting, this is where people get really super confused. Because when you’re looking at the traditional punitive disciplinary model of how school districts have historically dealt with behaviors among students; it’s all very punishment-oriented. And so, a consequence is something that gets meted out by staff. It’s something that gets delivered by the personnel in response to the student’s behaviors. Like, “If you don’t do that, the consequence is going to be detention … or suspension … or you’re going to have to write 100 sentences … or there’s always some consequence delivered by some other person, and that’s a punishment.

That’s not what ABA is talking about at all. In an ABA, you have to remember, as a science, it’s using terms in a very neutral kind of way. And so, for example, “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” do not mean what most people think it means when you’re talking about ABA.

It’s like batteries; “positive” and “negative” don’t mean “good” and “bad,” when you’re talking about a battery. When you’re talking about the poles of the earth, you have a positive pole and a negative pole. That’s not good or bad; it’s just that they’re opposites of each other.

In ABA, when you’re talking about positive reinforcement, what you’re talking about is the presentation of something that’s going to encourage a behavior to happen, again; a reward of some kind for the behavior. And when you’re talking about negative reinforcement, you’re talking about taking away something unpleasant that increases the likelihood of a behavior happening.

So, for example, let’s say that you’re a child sitting in a classroom and there’s an alarm going off of some kind, and that alarm is very distressful to you. The moment that alarm gets turned off, that aversive stimuli is eliminated, and now the environment has become much more rewarding for you to be in, because that bad thing has gone away.

So negative reinforcement is taking away something you don’t want … a zero … escaping/avoidance. And, positive reinforcement is giving you something you do want … a reward of some kind … so, that’s the one. Again, either you’re getting something or you’re getting away from something; there’s the one or a zero.

And so bearing that in mind, “consequence” also does not mean what most people think it means in ABA. It’s not what other people do in response to the behavior. What other people choose to do in response to a behavior is called a “reactive strategy.” Now, whether it’s effective or not is a-whole-nother conversation, but someone else’s reaction is not automatically what the behavior seeks.

So, the consequence is what the individual is trying to make happen with that behavior; whatever it is that reinforces the behavior is the consequence they’re seeking.

So, for example, if you have a toddler climbing on the kitchen counter trying to get to the top of the refrigerator to the cookie jar, the function of that behavior is to acquire a cookie inside that cookie jar. And, they’re engaging in this dangerous behavior to get something that they want, without even realizing they could be risking their own safety, because they’re little and they don’t know any better. They’re just trying to get what they want; that’s all they’re thinking about.

So, the function of the behavior, the consequence that reinforces the behavior, is the acquisition of a cookie. “I’m going to climb among counter and I’m going to acquire a cookie. And that cookie is my reinforcement for having climbed on the counter.” Climbing on the counter is the behavior.

So, what triggered the behavior? What caused the child to say, “Hey, I could climb on this counter and get to this cookie jar and get a cookie out of it, if I really wanted to”? Well, usually, it’s being able to see the cookie jar; knowing that it’s up there. And so, the antecedent is witnessing the presence of the cookie jar, or proximity to the cookie jar, or observation of the cookie jar. It’s something that exists in the environment that when they see it, they’re like, “Oh! I want a cookie,” and then that behavior of counter-climbing starts. And if they get a cookie, that’s the consequence they were seeking that reinforces the behavior.

So, in ABA, “consequence” means the payoff that the behavior is intended to make happen, whether it’s escape/avoidance, or its acquisition/attainment.

And so, when you’re looking at a behavior intervention plan in an IEP, and they’re talking about, “What are the consequences of this behavior?” and it starts listing all the things that the personnel on the school do in response to that behavior, that’s not right. That’s not what “consequence” means in that context. That’s not the application of the science.

What they’re describing are the reactive strategies. “This is what we do when we see this behavior.”

Now, ideally, when you’re doing a behavioral intervention, the consequence the person is trying to engage in … the student … is not being delivered. It’s being met with a reactive strategy, instead, to redirect them to something else … to have them use a more appropriate behavior, like asking for a cookie instead of climbing on the counter.

You’re trying to replace that behavior. You try to teach a replacement behavior so that the need is fulfilled, or whatever that function is that they’re trying to meet, they’re using a more appropriate behavior to make that happen than the one that you’re trying to mitigate, if they’re, especially if they’re engaging in something that’s dangerous, or, you know, ii could compromise their safety. You want to teach them an appropriate replacement behavior.

Or, if they’re being disruptive in the classroom, because they’re getting up and running around. And, maybe what they really need to do is request a sensory break; they hold up a little break card, and they tiptoe over to the sensory area, or the sensory room, or they have some kind of, you know, fidget at their desk or something, that they can get their wiggles out without running around the room and disrupting everybody else.

First of all, you just want to make sure the consequence they’re seeking isn’t delivered. Because if the reinforcement they’re seeking is not forthcoming, then that behavior is not going to work for them anymore, and they’re gonna have to replace it with something else. But if you don’t teach them what to do, instead, whatever they come up with, and stuff, on their own, instead of what was is no longer working for them, if all you do is withhold reinforcement, there’s a really good chance, they’re going to find some other maladaptive behavior to replace the one you were trying to get rid of in order to still gain that outcome. And so you need to teach them a replacement behavior that’s more socially acceptable in that setting, to meet whatever want or need it is that they’re trying to … you know, to address.

And if, for some reason, the behavior is seeking something that’s inappropriate during that time, then it’s about teaching them how to delay gratification and wait until later, and they can work towards it. They can earn it, like, if what they really want is to play a game on their iPad, then that’s something they have to earn by doing something you want them to do. And then you use what’s called a Premack Principle, which is a first-then strategy where, “first you do this, and then you can have what you want.”

And so, you get them to wait until later to acquire that reinforcer that they’re seeking and the only way they can actually obtain it is by doing what you want them to do, rather than running around, you know. You don’t want them acting up in the classroom, what you want them to do is to engage in this replacement behavior and earn whatever it is they’re looking for that they find reinforcing. If it’s something like, you know, a tangible, like a food item, or a toy, or a game, or if they need a break, if their sensory system is overwhelmed, and they truly need a break, you want them to ask for it appropriately and not just get up and run around the room.

And so, it’s about teaching them skills to still see their needs met. It’s not about leaving them hanging and say, “You know that behavior is inappropriate. I don’t care why it’s happening. Whatever your needs are that you’re trying to address, just stop it.”

Well, how would you like it if somebody told you to stop meeting your needs? And why would you do that to a child and who’s doing the best they can with what they have to work with, especially if they’re disabled, and they’re struggling even harder to figure out what the right thing to do is? That’s why you’re there. You’re there to teach them that.

This is how “consequence” gets misused in the special education context, when you’re talking about assessing behaviors, because you can’t figure out the function of the behavior unless you understand what is trying to make happen. What is the outcome the individual is trying to achieve by acting that way? That’s going to tell you what the replacement behavior should be. So if a behavior … if a child is rolling around on the floor holding his stomach because he’s in stomach pain, then the replacement behavior is a verbal request of some kind, or some kind of request that’s not rolling around the floor and screaming and yelling, and asking to go to the nurse’s office.

But, if they’re rolling around on the floor, because they just don’t want to do the work, well, how you react to that is going to be very different from the kid who really does have a stomach problem and needs to go to the nurse’s office. And so, it depends on what they’re trying to make happen. If they’re calling attention to the fact that they’re in pain, that’s quite a different thing than if they’re just throwing a fit because they don’t want to do the work. And so your reactive strategies are going to vary depending on the function of the behavior.

And you can’t determine the function of the behavior until you ascertain the consequence they’re trying to achieve by engaging in it in the first place. What you’ll find are individuals in the public education system who are used to using the term “consequences” to talk about what they’re going to do to you if you don’t act right. That is a punishment model; it’s very punitive; it’s very authoritarian. And it’s not about teaching anybody anything. It’s just about throwing your weight around and showing them who’s boss, which, you know, do we really need one more asshole in the public schools?

That’s not how that’s supposed to be used. And if anybody’s doing that, then it’s highly inappropriate and it does not conform with the science and, therefore, does not conform with the law. So explaining those distinctions, I think, is really important here. “Consequence” does not mean “reactive strategy.” It’s not what you do as a staff person in response to the behavior; it’s the outcome the individual is trying to achieve.

So based on that, I mean, have you seen this in your child’s IEP, if your child has a behavior intervention plan, or has had one in the past? Does this sound familiar at all to you?

So let’s look at an example, because I think that that actually can be really helpful.

Okay, so here’s what I want you to look at. In this document at the very, very top, it says, “[Student] is [sic] very compliant and pleasant young man. [Student] is not currently displaying behaviors that are interfering with others [sic] learning.” So here we are with this behavior plan and, first of all that, you know, when we’re talking about an operational definition, why would you have a positive behavior intervention plan for a student who is not currently displaying behaviors that are interfering with others learning? That’s not the point.

The point of any behavior intervention plan is to address behaviors that interfere with anybody’s learning, and here the student’s behaviors are being off task and not engaging in the instruction. How that doesn’t interfere with learning is beyond me. And, while it’s true that other people’s learning may not have been disrupted by him staring off into space, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t because that can be distracting when you got a neighbor who’s, you know, rubbernecking as he’s sitting right next to you, and you’re trying to focus. But, more to the point, it was his learning that was being disrupted. And that was the whole point of all of this.

So here we have, you know, some really vague descriptions of what exactly is going on with him and how it affects him. And the reality is his behaviors didn’t disrupt other people because he has a 1:1 aide who’s sitting in there making sure they don’t. And so again, they’re trying to treat the reactive strategies … the ameliorating effects of the mitigating strategies they’re using to somehow negate the fact that he has behavior challenges. He does have behaviors; that’s why he has an aide. What is this person doing with him that makes learning accessible to him, and prevents him from being disruptive to other people? And this document didn’t capture that.

The thing to notice here, too, is that there’s nothing listed with respect to consequences. The box there says, “Describe: Include antecedent/consequences as appropriate.” We have some information that describes when the behavior happens, or the conditions that sort of gives us a clue as to antecedents, but there’s nothing here listed with respect to consequences. And we had to fight tooth and nail to get the district’s BCBA to apply Applied Behavioral Analysis, and, even still, this was’t it. This was just a terrible document.

And so what you see here is not just the document itself, but also our feedback on behalf of the parent as to what it was going to take to fix it and make it right. We ultimately did get that resolved, but when you are being given IEP content as a parent, and they’re requesting your signature to authorize it, and, you know, you’re supposed to be signing off on this as somehow was beneficial to your child, and you consent to it, if what they’re giving you isn’t even sensible, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and it’s not scientific, you shouldn’t be agreeing to it.

And, in California, which is one of a number of consent states where parent parental consent is required to even so much has change an IEP, much less, you know, authorize it for implementation, this is something where a parent can come back and say, like, “I’m not going to agree to this. This doesn’t even make any sense. Here’s what’s wrong with it, and here’s what you need to do to fix it.”

And so, this goes just to the point that you can’t automatically trust that the documents being prepared say what they need to say, even if the people who are preparing them have all these fancy degrees and credentials that supposedly make them experts. Again, this piece of garbage was written by someone with a BCBA. This person was board certified to apply the science of Applied Behavioral Analysis to the design and delivery of IEPs for special education students in conformity with 34 CFR Section 300.320(a)(4), and this is the crap we got.

Knowing that, you can’t just automatically go in and trust that these people are going to give you expert advice or guidance, or conform with the science that their expertise supposedly makes them experts in. You have to be very critical as a parent, that, you know, if you’re going to … if they’re going to do this, they need to be doing it in conformity with the law, which requires them to do it in conformity with the science. And so it’s as simple as that.

And yet, if you as a parent don’t know what the science is, much less what the laws are … and you’re the one responsible for enforcing the law, unfortunately, because that’s the way the law is written … it becomes your burden as a parent to learn these things so you can protect your child, as unfair as that is. This is a circumstance we currently find ourselves in and until the IDEA gets reauthorized in a way that makes parents not the only entity responsible for enforcement, this is the boat we’re in.

So, it’s not enough that they use the right form. That may be procedurally compliant, up to a point, ut it’s not substantively compliant because it doesn’t give the child what the child actually needs. As a parent, just because you see things coming across on official forms and letterhead, don’t automatically assume that they say what they need to say. That … you need to be able to go in and actually dig into the document … the language of the document … and make sure that it actually gives your child what it’s supposed to.

And so hopefully, that helps you understand this issue and what “consequence” means in terms of Applied Behavioral Analysis versus a disciplinary model of behavioral intervention. As you’re pushing for your child to get appropriate interventions in school through the IEP process, you make sure that you’re using the right language and you’re asking for the right things. And, you know, when somebody is blowing smoke, and you’re able to call them on it … in, of course, as dignified and respectful way as possible. But, you know, you’re not obligated to take a bunch of guff off of these people either.

So, hopefully that’s been helpful and we look forward to seeing you in our next Quick-Fix video. If this was helpful, please like, share … if you haven’t already, subscribe to our videos here on YouTube. And, if you want to be able to access this video after it expires off of YouTube, it will live on forever ad-free on our Patreon channel, which I’ll have links to everything below. So again, thanks so much for watching, and we look forward to seeing you again in a future video.

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