Negative Side Effects of Punishment


Punishment is often accompanied by serious negative side effects (Newsome, Favell, & Rincover, 1983). The following pages, will discuss these negative side effects in detail. Afterwards, suggestions will be made concerning ways to avoid these shortcomings. A basic premise of this chapter is that these shortcomings are not inherent in punishment itself, but rather occur because of the manner in which punishment is administered in specific situations. The shortcomings are as follows:

  1. Punishment merely teaches what NOT to do. When used alone, punishment does not develop positive behaviors. If we wish to develop positive behaviors, we must use some form of reinforcement (discussed in detail in the previous chapter). Strategies for combining reinforcement and punishment into an integrated strategy are discussed later in this chapter.

  2. Punishment often causes avoidance behaviors. The recipient of punishment is likely to avoid both (a) the person who administered the punishment, and (b) the situation in which the punishment was administered. Thus, in schools where the assistant principal is the one whose main job seems to be to administer swats to unruly students, students often avoid the assistant principal. Since parents and teachers (and even assistant principals) are interested in teaching children appropriate behaviors, they make their job considerably more difficult if they must first make the children stop avoiding them before they can initiate positive contacts. Likewise, if children are frightened of school or of staying around the house out of fear of being punished, it will be difficult to help them develop adaptive skills. In addition, the other way out strategies discussed on page xxx of Chapter 10 arise from the desire to avoid punishment.

  3. Punishment often results in a mere suppression of the undesirable behavior. The punished person discovers that it is advisable to stop doing whatever incurred the punishment, but that the same behavior can be tried again as soon as the punishment becomes less probable. Since punishment merely teaches what not to do and suggests avoidance strategies, the punished person may merely cease the designated behavior until it appears that the aversive situation has been successfully avoided, or until a time when the pleasant results outweigh the aversive results.

  4. Punishment often results in a sort of behavioral constriction. The person who is punished may discover that the safest way to avoid punishment in the future is to avoid doing anything that even remotely resembles the punished action. (Note that this problem is related to the problems of attributions for failure and learned helplessness, which were discussed in Chapter 5.)

    A notorious instance of such overgeneralized punishment is cited by educators who maintain that school systematically eliminates creativity in children. Being informed that they are wrong is viewed as at least mildly aversive by most children and adults, just as being informed that they are right is at least mildly reinforcing. When children give wrong answers and are told they are wrong, they are likely to attempt to stop the behavior which leads to being told they are wrong. However, many of them feel that they are being punished for "giving it a try" or for offering a hypothesis, rather than for a misuse of a cognitive process or a simple mistake in memory. This is especially likely to be true if the punishment is severe (e.g., being called wrong in front of all their peers). When this punishment happens, children can avoid being called wrong in the future by simply not volunteering and not trying very hard. (It is less aversive to be called wrong if you have not even tried than if you have given your best efforts only to fail.)

    Likewise, some educators and critics of education contend that children approach our schools with a great deal of eagerness and creativity, and then as they go through school they are punished and told what not to do so often that they lose their spontaneity and become apathetic. The problem is one of overgeneralization; the child learns not only to avoid the specific undesirable behavior but also to avoid a large number of neutral or desirable behaviors.

  5. Punishment often results in undesirable modeling. If a child perceives that adults solve most of their problems by employing punishment, that child is likely to resort to punishment to solve his or her own problems. This vicarious learning (discussed in Chapter 10) becomes an especially serious problem when adults use such overtly aggressive tactics as spanking, hitting, and verbal attacks as their punishment techniques. In such cases adults should not be surprised when children engage in socially undesirable behaviors such as hitting other children when these others annoy them. The fact that the parents feel that they are "right" in administering their punishment, whereas the children are "wrong," is of little relevance. What a child perceives is: "Mom and Dad solve their problems by hitting. I have a problem now. So I should hit the person who is responsible for my problem."

  6. Punishment often leads to retaliatory behavior. A person who has been frustrated through punishment is likely to be upset. Depending on the person's level of maturity and the degree to which the person holds the punisher responsible for the aversiveness of the situation, the recipient of punishment is likely to want to get even. Many children "declare war" in this way and nurse their need for revenge for remarkably long periods of time.

  7. Punishment often leads to negative self evaluations. A person's self concept (discussed in Chapter 8) is based on the person's self-evaluations; and these evaluations are derived, in large part, from significant others in the person's environment. A person who is constantly the recipient of punishment is likely to form a negative self concept, and to develop perceptions of low self-efficacy and learned helplessness (discussed in Chapter 5). Learners who perceive themselves as incompetent are likely to either avoid undertaking activities out of a fear of failure or to engage in undesirable activities which are related to their negative self evaluation.


These negative side effects are sound reasons to consider strategies other than punishment for controlling undesirable behaviors (Matson & DiLorenzo, 1983; LaVigna & Donnellan, 1986; Donnellan & LaVigna, 1988). If these negative side effects of punishment were inevitable, perhaps punishment should never be used as a behavior control technique. However, it is important to note that reinforcement also has consequences that could be considered negative side effects (described on page xxx of chapter 10); but most people have a tendency to ignore these (Balsam & Bondy, 1983). These side effects are often parallel to those that accompany punishment. For example, while punishment may cause undesirable avoidance, reinforcement often causes equally undesirable dependency. Likewise, while punishment may model violence, reinforcement may model greed and materialism. However, these shortcomings are not actually inevitable. These negative side effects are not inherent in the act of punishment or reinforcement itself, but rather result from the procedure is administered. If either punishment or reinforcement is properly administered, these undesirable consequences can be minimized or completely eliminated.

In weighing the usefulness of punishment, it is important to keep two points in mind:


With these two factors in mind, it is apparent that a person who refuses to learn how to administer punishment appropriately is faced with two equally undesirable alternatives:


In addition, it is likely that a person who does not understand the principles behind administering punishment effectively will let punishment occur accidentally - thereby causing the reduction or elimination of behaviors that should actually be encouraged. Therefore, it is extremely important to come to a thorough understanding of the principles of punishment. Developing a proficiency in punishment does not mean that educators should punish students as often as possible or brag about new and unique ways they have devised to torture children. Nor does it mean that teachers should resort to punishment first whenever a problem arises. What proficiency in punishment does mean is that when punishment is the appropriate technique (which will sometimes be the case) effective educators will be able to punish appropriately. It is essential to be sure to accomplish the desired goal, rather than an unintended outcome.


Guidelines for Effective Punishment


The following guidelines will be helpful in making punishment work effectively:

  1. Punish a behavior, not a person. Punishment should never be presented or perceived as a personal attack. There is little point in calling a person a "bad boy" or a "spoiled brat."

    It's the Way You Say It
    (Punish the Behavior, Not the Person)


    If two children are preparing to hit each other with baseball bats, this act might be an appropriate occasion for punishment, since hitting with bats is something not to do. Some bad ways to present the punishment would be: "Can't you two ever stop fighting?" "You could kill each other with those bats!" "What the hell are you trying to do?" Some better approaches might be: "Bats are for hitting baseballs, not for hitting baseball players. I am going to take the bat away for today." "When fights start it is best to cool off for a while. You can rejoin the game as soon as you have cooled off."

  2. An obvious problem with a personal attack is that it puts the person being punished on the defensive side of an argument. Losing the argument is perceived as a second (usually unintended) aversive event. A second problem is that the personal attack attaches a label. A person labeled as "lazy" or "irresponsible" is provided with a rationale for adopting that role; and adopting the role may often be easier and more rewarding than working to reject or disprove the label. In addition, since the recipient of a personal attack is likely to doubt his or her self-efficacy and to attribute failure to stable, uncontrollable factors, motivation to improve is likely to be reduced. (See Chapter 5.)

  3. To overcome this difficulty, be sure that the person being punished understands that you think he/she is really a fine, lovable person, who is capable of performing the appropriate behavior - even though the action just performed was inappropriate. This positive regard is something that should be conveyed in an overall relationship with the person rather than in a single sentence just prior to the administration of punishment. A good idea is to arrange a chance for the person being punished to perform a desirable activity shortly after the punishment, so that you can then express your high regard and so that the person can confirm perceptions of self-efficacy.

  4. Specify the behavior that is being punished. The recipient of punishment should not be left with a "What did I do now?" feeling. You have perhaps heard the story of the mother and father who decided late one night that it was about time their children stopped cursing. The family gathered for breakfast the next morning and the oldest son initiated the conversation in his customary manner: "Pass the damn ham!" The father immediately slapped the boy with his open hand, knocking the stunned child about twelve feet across the room. The father then turned to the next oldest son and asked, "Now what do you want?" The boy was scared stiff and could only mumble, "I don't know. But I sure as hell don't want any of that damn ham!"

  5. The person being punished can best avoid further punishment by focusing on the specific behavior that caused it. If the contingency is unclear, the recipient may either fail to avoid the targeted behavior or avoid more behaviors than we really want to prevent. In many cases the person being punished will be able to identify the specific undesirable behavior without a detailed explanation. A sermon need not accompany every punishment. The important point is that if ambiguity exists, then clarification is in order.

  6. Punish as early as possible in the behavioral sequence. If you see a child reaching for his little brother's toy (which he usually throws out the window), punish him as soon as you see him start the activity. (Be certain, of course, that grabbing the toy is what the child really intends to do.) If you wait until the process is completed, then your punishment has to compete with the rewards he reaps from his brother's screams. To outweigh such reinforcement, you would have to resort to a much more severe punishment than if you had punished early in the sequence.

    An exception to this guideline occurs when the behavior is likely to have a natural unpleasant outcome. If no serious harm will occur and if the person performing the behavior is likely to feel naturally punished at the end of the activity, then it would be desirable to let the natural punishment occur rather than to intervene earlier with an artificial form of punishment.

  7. Match the severity of the punishment to the severity of the misbehavior. This matching is actually more difficult than it sounds, because either the punisher or the recipient of the punishment is likely to make an inaccurate estimate of the severity of either the misbehavior or the punishment. If the punishment is too light, the reinforcers inherent in the undesired behavior are likely to outweigh the punishment and the behavior will persist. If the punishment is too severe, the recipient is likely to engage in avoidance, suppression, self-devaluation, or retaliatory behaviors.

  8. Introduce the punishment at its full intensity. Well-intentioned attempts to start with a mild punishment and build gradually to more difficult forms of punishment are often misguided, because the recipient is likely to become habituated to the punishment. When this happens, the intensity of punishment eventually needed to actually reduce the behavior is likely to be much greater. This guideline does not mean that you should always give extremely severe punishments or that you should never make adjustments. It merely means that punishment will be more effective if you make an accurate judgment regarding the intensity of punishment that will be needed and deliver the punishment at that level of intensity when it is called for.

  9. Be sure that the recipient views the punishment as aversive. Something is aversive and therefore an effective source of punishment not because we think it is aversive, but rather because the recipient perceives it as aversive. What is punishment to one person in one situation may not be punishing to that same person in a different situation or to someone else in any situation. Many of the things we think are aversive to children and students are actually reinforcing to them!

    Be Sure the Punishment is Aversive

    Jamie is often required to sit in the corner when he misbehaves. The corner is right next to the bed, and he keeps a supply of comic books hidden under the mattress.

    Ken is a football player. Whenever he talks out of turn in math class, he is required to come to the front of the room and receive three hard swats from a powerfully-built teacher with a very thick paddle. The swats hurt a little, but no more than a solid tackle on the football field. Ken happens to know that one of his friends is keeping a list of the number of swats he receives. If he gets 20 more swats within the next ten days, he'll break the school record. (Ken is being reinforced by peer admiration.)

    Judy is kept after school for detention almost every night. Pat also spends much time on detention, almost always on the same nights with Judy. Judy's parents don't approve of Pat, and this is the only time they can get together. The two girls later get a ride home from school with Pat's boyfriend.


  10. Use natural consequences whenever possible. Everything said about natural and artificial reinforcement on pages xxx to xxx applies to punishment as well. Logical, unpleasant consequences are an effective form of natural punishment. Logical unpleasant consequences have the advantage of being available even when you are not available to deliver the punishment. They present a rationale that can be integrated with cognitive structures, and this information can be used to solve related problems in the future. In addition, logical consequences are likely to be perceived as fair. A person who views you as dealing fairly will not resort to avoidance, suppression, negative self evaluation, undesirable modeling, or retaliation as often as a person who views the punishment as arbitrary.

  11. Whenever possible, use punishment in conjunction with the reinforcement of an alternative behavior. This way you will be teaching what to do, as well as what not to do. Such multiple strategies are emphasized throughout this chapter. The combination of punishment with Type II reinforcement has been discussed on page xxx, and with Type III reinforcement on page xxx. A specific discussion of combining punishment with Type I reinforcement follows in the next section.

    Ben Imitates His Friends
    (Punish One Behavior, Reinforce Another)

    Ben usually plays very nicely with his friends. He is now three years old, and is starting to imitate some selfish behaviors which some of the older children in the neighborhood exhibit. Ben's mother has told him that she wants him to be like "Ben," not like the other children, and that if he grabs toys from little children, he will have to stay in the house. One day she sees Ben grabbing a toy from the two-year-old next door. She says, "Ben, those are Ronald's toys. Don't take them from him like that. Now you will have to stay in the house for a while.!" Fifteen minutes later she tells Ben to come outside and adds, "You're a good boy. Let's read your favorite storybook together."

    Is this last sentence a good way to demonstrate to Ben that he has his mother's overall approval in spite of the fact it was necessary to punish him?


    Sample Answer:

    This was a hard one! No. It would have been a have been more constructive approach to first give Ben an opportunity to do something desirable and then give him the reward in the context of his desirable behavior. He would then know he was "good" because he had just done something good (as opposed to his previous bad behavior) and his mother had rewarded him for it.


The Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (1990) has issued a position paper for helping professionals regarding the use of behavior reduction strategies with children with behavioral disorders, which includes the following guidelines:

  1. Practitioners planning to use behavior reduction procedures, especially those involving more aversive, intrusive, or restrictive techniques should obtain prior consent from the child's parents or legal guardians and from administrators, and clearance from human rights committees.

  2. Practitioners should carefully analyze potential target behavior(s) and the factors associated with their occurrence before initiating behavior reduction procedures.

  3. As a general rule, practitioners should implement and document the use of appropriate less aversive, intrusive, or restrictive procedures prior to implementing other procedures.

  4. Practitioners should develop and follow appropriate guidelines involved in using behavior reduction strategies.

  5. Practitioners should develop and subsequently follow a plan detailing the behavior reduction procedure(s) to be used in a particular case.

  6. Once aversive behavior reduction procedures are selected and approved, practitioners should select appropriate procedures for specific situations.

  7. Persons responsible for carrying out behavior reduction procedures must be appropriately trained.

  8. Practitioners should keep data on the efficacy of the behavior reduction procedures.

In addition, Griffith (1983) and Yell (1990) discusses the legal issues involved in administering punishment in schools.


Combining Punishment with Reinforcement

Punishment should almost never be used alone. The proper technique is to teach what not to do by punishing one behavior and simultaneously to teach what to do by reinforcing another behavior. The combination of punishment with Type II and III reinforcement has been discussed on pages xxx to xxx. It is also desirable to combine Type I reinforcement with punishment. This combination of punishment and Type I reinforcement is actually an extremely effective technique; both the reward and the punishment are intensified by a contrast effect (e.g., Van Houten and Doleys, 1983). The following examples show how punishment and Type I reinforcement of incompatible behaviors could be combined in examples previously discussed in this chapter.


Punishing Bill for Having a Sloppy Room

Bill could be required to stay in the house when the room is messy (punishment). He could be reinforced for neat behavior in the following ways:

  • He could be allowed to leave the room as soon as it met his parents' standards of neatness (Type II reinforcement).

  • His parents could praise him when he subsequently keeps the room neat (Type I reinforcement).

  • He could be given additional privileges once he has shown responsibility by keeping his room neat (Type I reinforcement).

  • Because the room is neat, he could avoid the nuisance of being unable to find things when he wants them (Type III reinforcement).

Note that the negative side effects of punishment still occur when it is accompanied by reinforcement. With this in mind, it is often better to use Type I reinforcement alone if such undesirable side effects are likely to appear and if the reinforcers are strong.

It may seem that the ideal classroom management strategy would be to employ positive consequences as often as possible. Actually, this belief may be slightly inaccurate. While positive classroom control is highly desirable, there is evidence that positive control techniques become more effective when used in settings where there has been at least an occasional use of punishment (Pfiffner & O'Leary, 1987).


The Positive Value of Failure

For most people, failure is a form of punishment. When we fail to accomplish something we care about, we feel bad. If we can identify the behaviors that caused this failure, those behaviors will be punished - that is, they will be less likely to occur in the future.

American parents and educators are often irrationally afraid to let their children experience failure. To a certain extent, their concern is legitimate. If failure is a form of punishment, it has the potential to lead to the negative side effects described in this chapter. Particularly salient side effects may be the avoidance of the subject matter in which the failure occurred and negative self concepts that may impede both further learning and future happiness.

However, if children are behaving inappropriately - as by acting disruptively in class or by using ineffective cognitive strategies to solve a problem - they are more likely to be motivated to change that inappropriate behavior if they feel upset about the fact that the behavior is causing them to fail at something they care about. From this perspective, when children are doing something wrong, the best thing that can happen to them is that they will perceive that they have failed because of their inappropriate behavior and will be motivated to get rid of this annoying feeling of failure.

A major key to helping learners profit from failure can be found in the discussion of motivation (especially attribution theory) in chapter 5. Using failure as a punitive threat is not likely to be productive; but it is also possible to integrate failure into students' intrinsic motivation. For example, by overcoming failure, they can set and achieve important goals, they can feel more in control of their lives, and they can gain recognition. Another key is to employ the guidelines in the present chapter for administering punishment effectively. Learners are most likely to profit from failure when they perceive it as a natural consequence that upsets them at least mildly but not traumatically and when they perceive specific causes for it that can be altered by channeling future effort more effectively.

Because people vary in their previous experience with failure, it is impossible to state specific, absolute guidelines for how to handle failure among all students. However, failure is likely to be an important part of the lives of all learners. Teachers should not try to insulate students from the possibility of failure; rather, they should help students learn to overcome and profit from failure. It is counterproductive (that is, a bad learning-to-learn thinking skill, discussed in chapter 7) for students to believe that they are "stupid" if they don't get an answer right on the first try. The ideal perception for students who fail at a task is for them to say to themselves that they "have not succeeded yet." Most readers of this book have at some time or other experienced the wonderful sensation that comes when we have tried and tried and then finally succeeded. This is an immensely powerful form of reinforcement for students to receive.


The following are appropriate general guidelines for dealing with failure (Vockell, 1993):

What Teachers Can Do about Failure:


What Parents can Do about Failure:

  1. When your children do well at legitimate tasks, praise them for it.

  2. When your children perform badly at legitimate tasks, help them feel dissatisfied. They should not feel ashamed, obsessively guilty, or disgusted with themselves - just dissatisfied and wanting to do better.

  3. Help your children believe that if they set realistic goals and work hard they can overcome most obstacles.

  4. When you fail at something yourself, express dissatisfaction and work hard to overcome the obstacles - children can learn how to deal with failure by watching others.

  5. Focus both your praise and your criticism on tasks - not on the child's personality. Refrain from labeling your child as "good" or "bad" because of performance on an academic task.

  6. Think before you either criticize or praise. Either may be appropriate at the right time; but try to have a good reason for either criticism or praise.


What Students Can Do about Failure:

  1. Try your best, but expect to fail sometimes. Only people who risk failure actually grow better or stronger.

  2. When you fail at a task, remember that you are not a failure. Figure out exactly what went wrong, and try to succeed the next time. Seek help, if necessary.

  3. Look at how people whom you admire handle success and failure and imitate their example.

  4. Remember, the only people who never make mistakes are the ones who don't try; if you try things that are difficult, you'll fail occasionally, and this is nothing to be ashamed of.


Where do you want to go next?

Introduction to Punishment
Negative Side Effects and Guidelines for Punishment <<You are here>>
Specific Forms of Punishment
Summary of Punishment
Additional Principles of Behavior Modification
Answers to Quizzes
Annotated Bibliography