Overcorrection is a form of punishment sometimes used in behavior therapy to change maladaptive behaviors.
Originally, overcorrection was a negative punishment, used to cause the person to associate the maladaptive behavior with discomfort and disgust. Although this had been found to stop the maladaptive behavior, it is no longer considered an ethical approach.
Most modern behavior therapists like those who practice applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, rarely apply overcorrection in their treatment programs. Punishment is seen as too direct, giving attention to negative behaviors, which might accidentally reinforce them. Instead, it is better to focus on positive behaviors and reward those.
Positive overcorrection has been found effective in some cases. This process involves requiring the person with autism to repeatedly perform the adaptive behavior in place of the maladaptive behavior, typically for a certain period of time. Short duration training using positive overcorrection, about 30 seconds at a time, has been shown to help the adaptive behavior become more routine, with less stress and negative side effects for the person with autism.
Still, while overcorrection can be used, it should be used sparingly. Many behavior therapists do not recommend it and instead recommend rewards and positive reinforcement, perhaps with some mild reproach for maladaptive behaviors. This means that, if your child is diagnosed with autism and receives behavior therapy, they are unlikely to receive such negative punishments. Instead, they find a supportive environment with their ABA therapist.
Overcorrection: An Older Tool Sometimes Adopted in ABA Therapy
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is a form of evidence-based treatment that helps to manage behavioral symptoms of a variety of conditions. This approach has been especially helpful in supporting behavioral improvements in people with autism, which is a developmental condition that can impact socializing, communication, cognition, and even motor skills.
ABA therapists are certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), which requires specific training in ABA approaches. Although there is a standard approach to certification, there is a range of specific practices that an ABA therapist may implement in a treatment program for a person with autism.
One controversial but often effective method is overcorrection. While the practice began as a punishment or a negative consequence of an action, recent takes on overcorrection have created a more positive approach to reinforce adaptive behaviors rather than maladaptive behaviors. Modern versions of overcorrection are still considered disciplinary strategies, so they must be employed with caution when treating vulnerable populations, like children with autism.
Currently, there are three types of overcorrection.
- Positive practice: This is the most often used method of overcorrection for ABA therapy. When a client, like a child with autism, commits an infraction like a maladaptive behavior, the person must repeatedly practice the correct behavior for the situation to reinforce the appropriate response to a situation or stress.
- Negative practice: In this original form of overcorrection therapy, the person with autism would be told to repeatedly display the wrong or maladaptive behavior. In theory, performing the maladaptive behavior repeatedly would increase the person’s aversion, and they would begin to see the behavior more as a punishment.
- Restitutional: The person would be required to return to the original space of the maladaptive behavior and then perform the adaptive behavior instead of the maladaptive behavior.
In the context of ABA therapy for children with autism, positive practice overcorrection has become the main focus. Positive reinforcement works best for people with developmental disorders who need support learning to adjust behaviors.
The History & Development of Overcorrection
The concept of overcorrection began as a therapeutic treatment approach for people with autism in the 1970s, and its effectiveness was studied in the early 1980s. The technique was used to “suppress” inappropriate or undesired behaviors in treatment participants, according to a paper published in 1981. The treatment was particularly applied to behaviors that were either self-stimulating or self-harming.
According to that early paper, applying overcorrection — at the time, usually negative overcorrection — led to a reduction in these behaviors. However, that process was considered inhumane, so positive overcorrection became the more prominent practice.
The stated reasons for developing both positive and restitutional overcorrection were to:
- Compensate for the environmental effects of an inappropriate act.
- Practice overly correct forms of behavioral change.
Another early study, published in 1983, backs up positive overcorrection as a potential method of reinforcing behaviors in ABA therapy. During treatment sessions, the researchers noted the person’s behaviors — whether they were correct responses, approximate responses, or off-task behaviors. When the person performed an off-task behavior, they received positive overcorrection: either a short practice duration of about 30 seconds or a longer practice duration of 3 minutes. Both produced equally rapid reduction in the off-task behavior and rapid acquisition of the correct response.
Over sessions, less time was required for positive overcorrection to make an impact. Shorter practice times were associated with fewer negative outcomes, so this was the preferred method, according to the research team.
Overcorrection Is Punishment So Must Be Used Sparingly
Since overcorrection is a form of punishment for maladaptive behaviors, it is important to keep the focus on positive overcorrection and positive reinforcement. ABA therapists typically avoid direct punishments and prefer instead to focus on rewarding positive behaviors and avoiding interaction with maladaptive behaviors.
Overcorrection has been considered one of the less effective methods of managing behavioral treatment. If you have concerns or questions about this approach, you should ask your child’s ABA therapist about what they think of overcorrection and if they have ever applied it in a treatment plan before.
In a survey of experts in Positive Behavior Support (PBS), about 15% reported that they would recommend overcorrection as an intervention. Other preferred methods among this group of experts were mild reprimand and extinction, with about three-quarters reporting this as their preferred method; 60% reported that they recommended response cost.
Positive Overcorrection Can Work for Some Children
Still, this approach can be beneficial for some people with autism in some scenarios. One survey on motor stereotypy in three young men with autism found the maladaptive behavior reduced when positive overcorrection was implemented, using the adaptive behavior. Two of the three study participants showed increased engagement with the adaptive behavior.
Since few behavior therapists recommend this approach, it is unlikely to be used as a tool during ABA therapy sessions. Even though some research shows that it works, other interventions work at least as well, if not better, and can offer a more nurturing and supportive environment for children with autism.
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