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On PBS (Positive Behavior Support) and Punishment

Posted Jan 01 2005 12:00am

Our general thesis has two parts. The first part is that whatever else it may be, PBS is not science, but rather a form of illusion that leads to dangerously biased decision making. This leads us to examine the basis of what a science of behavior, or of education or of anything else, must be in order to be called a science. The second part of our analysis shows that PBS is not new, if by new, it refers to either the synthesis of values with a technology or the content adherents claim it encompasses. In establishing these points we are led, and hope to lead the reader along with us, to an inescapable conclusion about PBS; namely, that it represents little more than propaganda designed to promote the professional interests of a group of social and educational reformers. Further, that little benefit in education or community service settings PBS practitioners might be able to provide is more than offset by the cost to them and their students of distorting the reality of the very behavioral processes they seek to alter and use to benefit people with disabilities. (Mulick & Butter, 2005, pp. 385-386)

This seems a harsh indictment of a favored intervention strategy–one focused on positive rather than negative consequences. In the language of behavioral psychology, PBS concentrates on positive reinforcement rather than punishment, something behavioral psychologists and special educators agree that educators and parents should do (see Kauffman, 2005; Kauffman, Mostert, Trent, & Pullen, 2006; Landrum & Kauffman, in press). So, how can it be as misguided an intervention as Mulick and Butter suggest?

Mulick and Butter argue that PBS is not new, merely science repackaged in “sugar coated” language that makes people feel better about it. All of the scientific principles involved in PBS have been known for decades as Applied Behavior Analysis (or ABA). The scientific part of PBS is merely ABA with all use of anything construed as “negative” (e.g., punishing consequences) prohibited. Thus, PBS as a science is only a slice of reality.

But, aside from the restrictions of science imposed on PBS, Mulick and Butter argue that PBS is derived from ideology, allowing it to be used in unscientific or even anti-scientific ways. PBS, they argue, is used to promote the personal biases of those who hold inclusion, normalization, nonaversive treatment, or other ideas about what is right or best to trump what is known to work. They argue that we must, indeed, hold humanitarian values, but they also note that humanitarian values need to be brought into the picture at the right time–first, in formulating our questions about goals and what we can achieve, then only after we have found out what works to achieve those goals. In their words, “Humanitarian choices must follow what science determines is feasible, given the social context, or the full range of options may never even be discovered, and the people whom we seek to help may be made helpless rather than be helped” (p. 397).

The warning that PBS provides an opening for ideologies antithetical to science is well taken. Mulick and Butter discuss some of these ideologies, especially normalization, inclusion, and nonaversive treatment. Indeed, PBS, they suggest, grew directly out of the nonaversive treatment ideology. The article by Sailor and Paul (2004) gives further credibility to the argument that PBS is being used to promote anti-scientific views.

PBS inevitably raises the issue of punishment, which it excludes. Newsom and Kroeger (2005) as well as others (e.g., Kauffman, 2005; Landrum & Kauffman, in press; Lerman & Vorndran, 2002), have reviewed the literature on punishment and found that its judicious use is both helpful in socializing individuals and unavoidable in everyday life. True, the misunderstanding and misapplication of punishment are far too common in America and other nations today. But the fact that something is often misunderstood or abused hardly justifies the prohibition of using it for good purposes. Consider the plane, the train, the automobile, the computer, whatever religion you wish, and money, for example. All can and have been used for good as well as for evil purposes. The issue, for me, is how to make punishment most effective and humane, not whether to allow it.

Certainly, we have no difficulty finding cases of abusive punishment, the mistaken notion that harsher punishment is more effective, of the fantasy that we can punish our way out of a social or behavioral problem. As much as some may believe that punishment or the threat thereof is the key ingredient in deterring evil doers and improving people’s behavior, my conclusion is that science does not support reliance on punishment as the primary means of improving people’s behavior, whether they are young or old, intellectually retarded or brilliant, good or evil. The misunderstanding and misapplication of punishment are far too common in America and other nations today.

However, as much as we may wish to highlight the evils of punishment, my conclusion is also that science does not support the notion that punishment in all its forms can be abandoned, circumvented, or eliminated with good effect. Thus, I think Mulick and Butter’s characterization of PBS is accurate, as is Newsom and Kroeger’s explanation of how nonaversive treatment is an ideology that works against effective intervention. Like facilitated communication, gentle teaching, and other hoaxes, fads, and fashions, PBS and nonaversive treatment are in my opinion contrary to a scientific understanding of developmental disabilities and to truly humane special education and other interventions. I hope the popularity of PBS will wane as people return to its scientific roots in ABA.

Kauffman, J. M. (2005). Characteristics of emotional and behavioral disorders of children and youth (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kauffman, J. M., Mostert, M. P., Trent, S. C., & Pullen, P. L. (2006). Managing classroom behavior: A reflective case-based approach (4th ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Landrum, T. J., & Kauffman, J. M. (in press). Behavioral approaches to classroom management. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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.
Mulick, J. A., & Butter, E. M. (2005). Positive behavior support: A paternalistic utopian delusion. In J. W. Jacobson, R. M. Foxx, & J. A. Mulick (Eds.), Controversial therapies for developmental disabilities: Fad, fashion, and science in professional practice (pp. 385-404). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Newsom, C., & Kroeger, K. A. (2005). Nonaversive treatment. In J. W. Jacobson, R. M. Foxx, & J. A. Mulick (Eds.), Controversial therapies for developmental disabilities: Fad, fashion, and science in professional practice (pp. 405-422). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
Sailor, W., & Paul, J. L. (2004). Framing positive behavior support in the ongoing discourse concerning the politics of knowledge. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 6, 37-49.

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