Friday, March 15, 2019
By Karen Fry, MA, BCBA
Mosaic Mental & Behavioral Health Services

Can you really change people’s behavior without punishment? The answer is “absolutely, yes!”

Unfortunately, people often think they are supposed to address undesirable behavior with punishment or unpleasant consequences. The good news is that you do not need to do this.

Behavioral scientists have proven that in the long run, behavior responds better to positive consequences; punishment is not necessary to improve behavior. State-of-the-art behavioral supports should always include treating people with unconditional love and using sound behavioral techniques.

Here are the top four universal behavioral support techniques, which can be used with anyone:

1. Do not react directly to undesirable behavior. People should act as if the undesirable behavior did not happen. We want to prevent reinforcing the undesirable behavior by accident, and we want to prevent an interaction that might make the person feel worse. People who observe an undesirable behavior should not say anything about the behavior. The person who had the undesirable behavior may still need attention, but it should not include attention concerning the undesirable behavior. This is different than ignoring a person; we never want to completely ignore someone.

2. Avoid using coercion. This sounds obvious, but most of us use coercion by accident without realizing it, even when we have good intentions. Coercive interactions typically result in making someone feel worse. Correcting someone, reprimanding someone, reacting to undesirable behavior or telling someone to “stop,” are common examples of coercive interactions that we think we are supposed to do. Coercion has bad side effects like anger, thoughts of retribution and trying to escape. These bad side effects make it likely that someone experiencing coercion will use more undesirable behavior. Coercion damages our relationships. When we avoid using coercion, we are striving to be Christ-like in our behavior by treating others with unconditional love.

3. Give people lots of good, high quality attention. To make the attention high quality, one should use the first two techniques: not react directly to undesirable behavior and avoid using coercion. High quality attention involves asking open-ended questions about something the person likes to discuss and using empathy statements. Short moments of high quality attention can be very valuable and do tremendous things to improve relationships.

4. Use reinforcement often. As mentioned earlier, the best way to change behavior is to provide positive consequences for desirable behavior. This is what the expression “catch them being good” means. When one has a good relationship with someone, praise is likely to be very reinforcing. Sometimes people need reinforcement to be more elaborate than praise. Ultimately, when we reinforce desirable behavior we are using the best technique to change behavior.

In addition to these four techniques, the environment is extremely important in influencing behavior. Look for ways to modify the environment to make desirable behavior easier. For example, if one is trying to not eat too many sweets, it is helpful if there are not sweets in the environment.

There is much more to say about behavior, but hopefully this introduction to universal behavioral support techniques will give you some usable suggestions. People in Rejoicing Spirits congregations are welcome to contact me at for more information on behavioral supports.