Discipline is a hot-button issue that meets with many strongly held and divergent opinions. I’ll take a direct approach and speak as a clinician as that will be the best way for me to start a discussion.

In behavioral terminology discipline is more typically called “punishment.” Clinically, punishment is defined as, “a consequence that decreases the probability of subsequence occurrence of the behavior it follows,” (Cooper et al, 1987). This is desirable in the case of disruptive behavior. However, note that punishment is defined by its effect on behavior and not by its intention. That is, I might remove a privilege due to disruptive behavior but that alone does not make it punishment; only if the likelihood of that disruptive behavior occurring again decreases is it actually punishment. An example will be helpful:

  • -A child grabs a toy from a sibling;
  • -A parent approaches the child and gives the toy back to the sibling;
  • -The child repeatedly grabs the toy from the sibling over the next ten minutes.

In this case, the frequency of the disruptive behavior did not decrease and we can not be certain that removal of the toy served as a punishing consequence. What are possible explanations for this:

  • -Child was indifferent to removal of the toy;
  • -Child was reinforced by approach of the parent;
  • -Child was reinforced by reaction of sibling.

Of course, there could be other explanations but it stresses the point that our responses to disruptive behavior must address the function of that behavior. Function can be thought of as the underlying “why” of a behavior or, “What is my child achieving by doing this?” Thus, a consequence, the removal of a toy, can be intended as a punishment but it actually functions as a reinforcer, perhaps due to the child enjoying the attention from parent or clinician. Functions are often described in terms of four categories:

  • -Escape/avoidance: I don’t want to do this, don’t want to tolerate this situation any longer;
  • -Tangible: I want this favorite toy/activity right now;
  • -Attention: I want mom/dad/teacher to interact with me;
  • -Automatic/sensory: meets a sensory or internal need/desire

Still, these clarifications of definition do not make the decisions of when and how to use punishment easier. Concerns about its effective and appropriate use are legitimate and it has been recommended that it be limited to situations in which other interventions have failed (May et al, 1975). These other interventions include:

  • -Teaching and reinforcing an appropriate replacement behavior;
  • -Reinforcing the absence of a behavior, e.g. child did not take toy from sibling so let’s reinforce with attention;
  • -Removal from possible reinforcement, e.g. child enjoys reaction of sibling so let’s separate.

All of these interventions rely on identification of the function of the behavior. If we aim to teach an appropriate replacement behavior then that replacement needs to provide the result previously gained via disruptive behavior. For example, the child who likes to gain his parents’ attention can be taught to verbalize, use ASL sign, picture exchange communication system (PECS), or other.

If we’re certain that we are attempting to teach appropriate replacement behaviors then we can consider punishment if improvements are not as strong as desired. If a child is being taught to appropriately request parents’ attention but some level of disruption persists then the parent can briefly turn attention away from the child upon occurrence of disruptive behavior. Most would not consider this a harsh or unnecessarily aversive punishment but if it effectively reduces the frequency of disruptive behavior then it is working as a punishing consequence.

Safety situations often see the use of the combination of reinforcement for appropriate replacement behavior and punishment for unsafe/disruptive behavior. An example would be a child who likes to wander without having awareness of dangers. The child may have access to favorite items if she stays within a safe area, say the playground at school, but immediately needs to return to her desk and loses access to favorite items if she strays beyond the safe zone.

Questions about a child’s understanding of a punishment are often asked. For example, does this child understand that the DVD player is unavailable tonight due to disruptive behavior that occurred six hours earlier at school? If you’re not certain then it could be better to restrict punishment for times that it can be enacted immediately following the disruptive behavior.

Time-out is an intervention that is frequently used and often met with disagreement and controversy. Time-out is designed to separate a child from the reinforcing consequence of a disruptive behavior. For example, time-out might be used to separate a child from a favorite toy if the function of the disruptive behavior was to gain access to that toy; conversely, time-out might not be used to separate from homework if the function of the disruptive behavior was to get a break from the work (the time-out provides the desired break). Basing duration of time-out on age, e.g. one minute for every year of age, is not supported by empirical research. The two criteria that have been empirically shown to improve effectiveness of time-out are as follows:

  • -Time-out occurs immediately upon occurrence of the disruptive behavior;
  • -“Time-in” is greatly desired:
    • -“Time-in” refers to the situation the child was in upon occurrence of the disruptive behavior. Using the examples above “time-in” with the toy was desired and separating by time-out is indicated; “time-in” with homework was not desired and separating by time-out (thus providing a break from the home-work) could be counter-productive.

This is a brief discussion of discipline which doesn’t come anywhere close to examining all the emotional, social, and clinical issues about the topic. Hopefully, though, it provides a starting point for thinking about the effective and appropriate use of discipline/punishment. Namely:

  • -Do we have a good hypothesis about the function of the disruptive behavior;
  • -Are we actively teaching an appropriate replacement behavior;
  • -Have we tried other interventions such as reinforcing the absence of the disruptive behavior and controlling access to consequences that might reinforce it;
  • -If so, does the punishment meet the function of the behavior;
  • -Is the punishment harsher than it needs to be;
  • -Is the punishment consistent and timely.


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (1987) Applied Behavior Analysis. Columbus, OH: Merill Publishing Company.

May, J.G., Risley, T.R., Twardosz, S., Friedman, P., Bijou, S., Wexler, D., et al (1975). Guidelines for the use of behavioral procedures in state programs for the retarded.  M.R. Research, 1.