Leading and Caring for Children

Consequence Alternative


Aversives are things unpleasant provided as a consequence.

From the Seattle Times:
A woman who operates a day-care center in Wallingford District explained that she was “teaching him a lesson” when she sank her teeth into both cheeks of a 1-year-old on Friday. The incident was reported to police by the infant’s mother, who said she angrily confronted the 25-year-old baby-sitter after picking up her son. The woman admitted biting the child, explaining that it was intended to teach the boy not to crawl around biting other children. The mother said she immediately withdrew her son from the day-care center. The boy was treated by a doctor that afternoon. 

Aversives is the general name for things unpleasant provided the child after a behavior in the hope that the behavior will occur less often in the future. The research shows that it is rarely effective. Almost incomprehensibly, it is widely used as if it were a necessary tradition. Spare the rod and spoil the child.

The data below are from a Gallup Survey of 991 families in the US in 1995. (Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, Vol 2, No 2, 1999) figure1:2The first graph shows the percentage of surveyed families admitting to using corporal punishment at each age of the child. The forms of corporal punishment include slapping the arm or bottom, hitting with an object on bottom, slapping face, head, or ears, and shaking. The second graph depicts the number of times corporal punishment was used in one year at each age of the child. The dotted line is the mean for that age. The solid line is a moving average that takes out the spikes.

Another study that is not depicted used the same 991 families and focused on psychological aggression. It found that 90% of parents of children age 2 to 6 used shouting, yelling, screaming, or threatening-to-spank on the average of 13 times a year. Approximately 25% of parents swore at, cursed or called their child a name an average of 7 times a year; the percentage increased as the child grew older reaching 33% for children ages 13 to 17. (Journal of Marriage and The Family, November 2003)

Aversives Differ from the Rest

In considering Aversives in the larger picture of consequences I want to draw important distinction between giving and taking away. The ones I have covered so far, Ignoring, Deny Activities, and Time Out, are collectively called response cost consequences. Something desirable or pleasant to the person is removed, rather like having to pay a fine for a parking violation. The provision of aversives, on the other hand, is an attempt to punish (lessen the frequency or strength) a behavior by providing something undesirable or unpleasant, rather like making the violator do 100 pushups for that a parking violation instead of a fine.

Upset little boyThe data are clear that Aversives are amazingly common in homes and also happen in schools, too, and it isn’t just slapping hands with a ruler. A second grade classroom I visited had a display above the chalkboard: on the left was a list of the children’s names and stretching to the right were the stars they earned for 100% correct arithmetic homework papers. All the children had long rows of stars except for one girl who had only one star. Even though she had a visitor in her class, this teacher called the girl up to stand beneath the display and asked her, before all her classmates, why she had not done her arithmetic homework. She hung her head and said nothing.

Bully. Add shaming and ridicule to the list, for they are the worst aversive of all. One never forgets being shamed.

You, too, might have used aversives. It’s common to hear, “No”, “Don’t”, “Stop talking”, “I don’t like it when…”, “Shhhhh!”; or making non-verbal expressions such as finger to lips, grimacing, lifting eyebrows, pointing finger, wrinkling forehead, frowning, putting hand behind one ear. All are aversives. All provide something unpleasant as a response to what a child or a group of children do.

Straight Talk About Hurting Others

Like sex, talking about aversives may not only be uncomfortable but also essential, so we are up front about all the choices. Aversives as a subject is fraught with moral and ethical difficulties. The National Association of Early Childhood Educators (NAEYC) has a code of ethical conduct which states as its first Principle: First do no harm, while harm continues on and on as a cultural practice.

We have to address the nuances of aversives in order for this unethical hurting to stop. It may take generational change for families, but we educators have to insist that aversives at least be openly discussed. On the one hand hurting is uncivil and illogical: how can you educate young children to be courteous and caring if the adults around them model ways of being that are unpleasant, even abusive? On the other hand, aversives may have a place, if one is wise and caring.

The biggest trouble with aversives, it seems to me, is that they are most likely used in times of anger or emotional stress. At those times the brain is not so smart. Neurotransmitters impede synapse transmission. I recall when I was very angry at a child, I envisioned a golden spotlight illuminating his little body, and all I could think of was punishment; only later, when I was calm, did I think of better options.

I include aversives on the list of options for consequences, because I think there are times it may be a viable option, BUT its use must meet three criteria:

  1. It must be used infrequently. If used frequently, it has no effect. By infrequent, I mean once.
  2. The exact inappropriate behavior is defined exactly, with clearly demarcated conditions and circumstances, determined by a group of caring adults, when they are calm, and after thoughtful discussion.
  3. The alternative positive behaviors are also identified and strong positive responses for those are used often.

Only once in my experience have these three conditions been met, and it was not a school problem. Mike, a four-year-old in my school, was reasonably productive, social, and engaged, mostly, but his eyesight wasn’t great. However, the parents faced a troubling problem. Their house was sited about 50 yards from a busy street, a street that curved through a greenbelt area without signals or stop signs. It invited accelerated speeds. Between Mike’s house and the street was an inviting, gentle down-sweep of grass maintained by the city parks department. At the bottom there was no sidewalk; the grass grew right to the curb. At the house they had no front fence. Mike had some mental processing problems, too, which when combined with his farsighted optical correction limiting his peripheral vision, made this grassy running place dangerous if he ever got to the bottom. One time his parents had to run after Mike when he somehow got out of the house and wandered down the slope to the busy street. They wanted a plan to manage this possibility, so we used the protocol process together, looking at all the options for consequences to running down the hill alone. They decided that they would keep talking to Mike about the traffic dangers while looking down that slope and giving him hugs. Then, if Mike ever did venture down that grassy slope alone again, he would get a spanking on his bottom. That is what they did, and they only had to do it once. He got the idea and, as far as I know, he never ventured down there alone again.

Having aversives on the list of possible consequences seems a reasonable idea to me, because it helps it never be used anymore.

In marked contrast to this, the next option is my all time favorite.


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  1. Specify the behavior exactly
  2. Take a before measure
  3. Identify the A-B-C pattern


  1. Change the consequences
  2. Pick a new behavior to reward
  3. Change the antecedents
  4. Continue to measure

Examples of SandyJeremy, and Charlie

Deny Activities
Time Out
Personal Record
Positive Practice

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