When school suspension reinforces maladaptive behavior.

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, MA., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

Sometimes suspending students from school can be the worst thing for that learner’s future behavior. If a behavior problem functions to escape school it will increase because the student WANTS to be sent home. Parents or clinicians can stop this from happening if they contraindicate it in the student’s IEP.

In a recent YouTube video posted by Brett DiNovi, we follow him to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting to discuss one of his clients receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services in a Philadelphia school.  Unfortunately, the child was facing suspension due to behavioral challenges at school.  However, Brett noted “people don’t realize that a BIP may not fit into the cutlure of the city, environment, or household”. 

In this case, the culure is inner-city Philadelphia.  Suspension would likely start the child down a path like many others in the area where they drop out of school never to return.   Moreover, in this case, suspension actually risked making the problem behavior worse.

Knowing the probable escape functions of suspension, Brett went into the meeting advocating for in-school suspension, which helped to guarantee a brighter future for the child.  He noted “since the function of his behavior is to escape school, the worst thing they can do is suspend him because he sits at home and plays games all day”.

The lesson here can be summed up succinctly with the phrase “function over form.”  In other words, just because something “looks like” a reinforcer or punisher, doesn’t mean it is.  Behavior analysts are trained to evaluate the functions that suppossed consequences have on the future rate of behavior.  The function of an object or event is not inherent in the stimulus itself – functions can be different for each individual and change within each individual over time.

To see the full story, check out Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos!

If you have faced similar situations when working in schools, please share them in the comments below!  Also remember to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org.  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, bSciStudios and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at [email protected]

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. I taught special education for 35 years from pre-K up through high school. I totally agree with this. I would add that if the ISS was given to a special needs student that depending on severity of disability, should be with a special ed. teacher who would know how to work with student to change given behavior. I mainly taught students with Learning Disabilities at the high school level, some with their own behavior issues. One in particular came into my school as a sophomore after serving time for accessory to murder! He turned out to be more polite than other students but still had some problems with authority figures. He mouthed off at principle, who was an arrogant anti-special Ed. administrator and expelled him. The young man stood across the street off school property for a week staring at the school. The sped. director said there was nothing he could do. I felt like he just wanted to have job security. I rocked the boat on this as well as other issues in our dept. and was forced to leave. I still think about that student and hope that he was able to stay on the straight and narrow and be productive and happy in his life. With the way the family unit as well as society has changed in the past 50 years, the concept of ISS over OSS should be applied to all students really. If we’re truly in it for the students, we should be working to help them be successful. We can pay now or pay later.

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