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Punishment: Should it Be the Last Resort?

October 21, 2021

When preparing children for the real world, learning about consequences and punishment is important. 

Punishment: Should it Be the Last Resort?

Punishment should not only be used as a last resort. This is a controversial statement that may make you stop reading this article before it begins—but hear me out before you make a judgment. The keyword in this statement is “only”. Yes, punishment should be the last resort when you are trying to decrease behavior because the goal should always be to teach another behavior that can take its place. 

Realistically, that’s not always possible. Punishment is part of the real world, and we need to get our children ready for it. Therefore, punishment should not only be used as a last resort. In this series, we will look at the dangers of punishment, the different types of consequences you can use and how to prepare your child for the real world.

Let’s zone in

Historically, we know punishment has a bad reputation in ABA. The reason this happened was that for a long time our science was focused on reducing “bad behaviors” at all costs. Now let’s stop here and analyze why calling a behavior “bad” is definitely not the best choice of words. 

No behavior is “bad”, it either interferes with your life or does not. What if rather than looking at behaviors as good or bad, we looked at them as interfering or not interfering with a child’s life. For example, Joey likes to flap his hand while sitting in class. This flapping does not create noise and does not interfere with his or his peers’ ability to listen to the class. However, he can’t do his homework when he is flapping his hands, so this behavior becomes interfering when it doesn’t allow him to do his homework.  

With this example, you can see how a behavior can be interfering in one scenario and not in another. Was it a bad behavior? That language simply puts a negative connotation on it, which does nothing for us. You might even want to say that it’s bad behavior to use that kind of language. However…don’t. Let’s throw that language out the door and focus on what is interfering with the lives of our children.

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Punishment in view

Let’s shift our focus back to punishment and its many side effects. 

1. Children’s manipulation

One of the first and most known side effects of punishment is that it may lead to your child having an emotional or aggressive reaction to the punishment. This reaction occurs when a child tries to escape from the punishment. 

The problem with this side effect is how the emotional or aggressive reactions often lead to getting out of the punishment. This reinforces the idea that if they get emotional or aggressive, they will get away with things, leading to a whole new behavior. So, unless this reaction does not lead to an escape from the punishment, this punishment won’t be effective, and you have a new interfering behavior to worry about. 

2. Children ceasing unwanted behaviors to avoid punishment 

Next, punishment can lead the individual to escape or avoid the situation that leads to the punishment. This could mean that the child will want to stay away from the setting altogether because he or she expects a punishment. This is avoidable when you have a good reinforcement strategy in place to increase an alternative behavior. 

3. Using punishment for teaching

Another concern with punishment is that people using it tend to abuse it. For example, you may see the punishment used inappropriately, for other reasons than reducing the unwanted behavior. This can lead to unplanned punishment, which will likely lead to some of the other side effects we have already discussed. You may also see your child begin to model these punishments with his/her siblings and peers.

In conclusion 

As you can see, there are many reasons to avoid punishment. However, I want all of you to keep in mind that punishment has its time and place. We want our children to be prepared for the world in which we live and this world includes punishment (a lot of punishment, actually). We will touch more on this later in the series and discuss why we should not be afraid of this word: punishment.


Cooper J.O, Heron T.E, Heward W.L. Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson; 2007.

This article was featured in Issue 121 – Autism Awareness Month

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