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(Part 13 of a series of posts about Trauma-informed behavior analysis by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D)

Preventing and addressing connections between educational problems, trauma and mental health needs, and the legal system

Perhaps you are familiar with laws making it a crime to assault a medical worker in their line of work. Even the most caring mental health nurse may need to report injuries that occurred helping restrain a confused, drugged, juvenile patient who was suffering from mental health problems, preventing the client from self-harm. Of course, this difficulty isn’t the only way for a special education student to end up with traumatic effects of past interactions that are compounded by legal charges. Why do so many children go from getting kicked out of preschool, through a series of failed educational and residential placements as a teen, to facing jail time before they are fully adults? After hearing Matthew Bennett and friends’ podcast on trauma and criminal thinking, I was inspired to write a behavioral response to share some thoughts for our community.

While behavior analysts and collaborators may be well versed in “schedules of reinforcement”, another type of schedule matters too. This other kind of schedule is in place all around us, is often acting to viciously increase the likelihood of future problems, and may be invisible to most of the educators, foster parents, and even behavior therapists “trying to do the right thing.

We’re talking about schedules of “stimulus delivery” or schedules of interaction. In short, this kind of schedule makes a great deal of difference, whether it is “programmed” (planned in advance) or simply happens— and whether the stimulus is a member of the police, a school or hospital security guard, or the school principal. Even if we are talking about events that are recommended by a response team or safety plan, such as a foster parent coming to pick up a student after behavior is too severe for the school, or physical holds and restraints that take place to keep others safe, all these events can have powerful effects (or side effects) in the behavior stream.

Why do we talk about these events in terms of the “schedule”? In behavior analysis, a “schedule” can refer to the timing of stimulus delivery. For example, suppose a student’s safety plan states that after a certain behavior occurs, a parent will be called. The next few times it happens, the principal will be called in to talk with the student. After that, a safety officer will be called to escort the student off grounds and he will be asked to stay home for 2 days. Suppose this proceeds over the course of about a year, and by the spring semester his challenging behavior has escalated and the last few times, a security guard is not sufficient and the police are called. The “schedule” of delivery might specify that at least one of these things happens every time the behavior occurs… that would be a fixed or continuous schedule. But more commonly, some behaviors are missed, or there is an unfamiliar substitute teacher who doesn’t act immediately and implement the plan, or some similar behaviors occur at home or in someone else’s class but are not treated the same way as the same behavior would at school in the classroom for which the plan was designed.

In fact, research shows that escalating “punishment”, or in other words, using more and more severe consequences over time, can actually increase behavior! This fact, well known to behavior analysts, surprises many educators who thought their prescribed plan would decrease behavior, not escalate it. Specifically, the research shows that if a stimulus is used because the team wants to decrease a behavior (and “decreasing a behavior” is called “punishment” in the literature, even if the team members don’t consider it that way), it is critical that the stimulus is intensive enough for it to be effective (Lerman and Vorndran, 2002), used every time the behavior occurs (Acker and O’Leary 1988), and used consistently and across environments. If used inconsistently, it will likely INCREASE the behavior (Tarbox, Wallace and Tarbox, 2002).

Unfortunately, this common situation has several side effects. For example, the following can all result:

  • Decreased response to the same events in the future and reduced effectiveness of the consequences over time
  • Escalating behavior challenges over time that produce the same or a slightly increased level of punishing stimulation
  • More varied and severe challenging behavior over time
  • Decreased ability of parents or caregivers to control behavior using the techniques at their disposal in the home or residential placement
  • Exposure to more restrictive settings including more and more secure residential facilities
  • Increased tolerance to the event, which results in the system using increased severity to try to keep everyone safe
  • Changing the nature of the once-aversive event (like a police altercation) into something “reinforcing”, or something that the child actually wants or tries to produce
  • Increased likelihood of legal system and police involvement
  • Decreased quality of life well into adulthood and deprivation of learning and social opportunities

As shocking as this may be to families and educators using these systems every day, the results do not surprise a behavior scientist familiar with the literature. Young or inexperienced clinical behavior analysts may not have been exposed to these cold facts, doing harm by not pointing out the risks inherent in many well-meaning school behavior plans or facility safety plans. Did you know a BCBA’s training IS required to include exposure to how to properly implement “parameters and schedules of punishment” (see BACB Fourth Edition Task List, item D-17)?. This means that in cases where punishment, or a consequence based strategy to decrease behavior, is needed (e.g., determined via a risk assessment to be necessary), we must determine ways to avoid escalating behavior (see also section 3.01 and 4.08 in Compliance Code, on the requirements for assessment before reduction procedures, and considerations regarding punishment procedures).

Are you a behavior analyst who hasn’t yet received this kind of important training, or an educator with behavior analysts on your team who haven’t mentioned this? Some suggestions are below for finding a starting place in the literature. Behavior analysts should be familiar with all task list and compliance code requirements for appropriately implementing punishment. Educators might check out this Edutopia piece discussing the use of discipline instead of punishment. A behavior analyst will work hard to avoid punishment. Instead, we begin with a functional behavior assessment that truly illuminates what the child needs and is trying to communicate, in order to build a plan fostering functional communication and coping skills.

Here are some topics to bring up or request supervision on:

  • Relationships between prompts and punishment
  • Using prompts and prompt fading appropriately to reduce, not increase, dependence on caregivers (this topic is strikingly similar to the reasons that least to most prompting for behaviors in acquisition can actually slow down learning the new behavior and increase prompt dependence)
  • Using appropriate parameters and schedules of punishment (calculating effective doses, appropriate timing, and communicating across settings to keep schedules consistent)
  • Risk assessment and analysis applied to behavior plans in environments risking escalating behavior due to inappropriate punishment

Practical skills for teams

  • Ensuring the entire team is trained to use appropriate physical management when needed
  • Training on how to do appropriate physical and crisis management and how to debrief after incidents (minimizing and not strengthening future challenging behavior)
  • Using alternative procedures as opposed to consequence based punishment and attempts to control behavior (instead, behavior analysts conduct a thorough functional behavior assessment and assess risks, focusing on teaching the team how to honor and establish communication attempts and teach coping skills)
  • Using solid communication and collaboration that is preventative and established before the client enters a new environment
  • Communicating in advance with emergency rooms, schools, and police departments in the client’s area

Closing thoughts:

When making placement decisions, the cheapest or first option available may not be appropriate if it contributes to long term risks for the client and community. Many times, a placement decision is made based on promises to get training and keep the client safe as long as nothing goes wrong. In fact, things WILL go wrong (e.g., it should be predicted and planned for). So risk assessments are critical in placement decisions. Teams must be transparent about the short and long term risks of environments that expose clients to models of behavior that is aggressive or destructive. And placement decisions to accept or remove a client due to inappropriate behavior should be evaluated with respect to the function of behavior and long term risks. Is this likely to increase similar behavior, producing long term likelihood of using aggressive attempts to escape environments? Does the team and environment have the ability to support the client to return to the setting after temporary removal due to aggression to others?

When we are thoughtful, collaborative and function-based, we can contribute to slowing the rushing pipeline carrying our clients and family members into more restrictive settings, and exposing them to more severe consequences. Let me know if some of these suggestions educated your team to coordinate behavior support and safety plans that are more appropriate, compassionate and preventative—and please share your own ideas that have worked.


Behavior Analysis Certification Board BCBA and BCaBA Task List, Fourth Edition:


Behavior Analysis Certification Board Compliance Code (2016):


Acker, M. M., & O’Leary, S. G. (1988). Effects of consistent and inconsistent feedback on inappropriate child behavior. Behavior Therapy, 19, 619-624.

Lerman, D. C., & Vorndran, C. M. (2002). On the Status of Knowledge for Using Punishment: Implications for Treating Behavior Disorders. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35, 431- 464. http://dx.doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2002.35-431

Tarbox, Wallace, and Tarbox (2002). Successful generalized parent training and failed schedule thinning of response blocking for automatically maintained object mouthing. Behavioral Interventions, 17 (3), 169-178.

Lori Desautels (2018). Aiming for Discipline Instead of Punishment, Edutopia, published online March 1, 2018. https://www.edutopia.org/article/aiming-discipline-instead-punishment

Trauma-informed lens podcast: https://connectingparadigms.org/podcast/episode-25-trauma-criminal-thinking/