An alarming and surprisingly common behavior among some developmentally disabled individuals is self-injurious behavior. The severity of this ranges from mild nail-biting to very severe head-banging or choking. This can be quite alarming for caregivers, other children, and can present a serious danger to the child engaging in the behavior. While such behavior would seem to be maladaptive, there is evidence that it is in fact learned through operant conditioning and that these behaviors persist because they reinforced by the child’s environment. If this is true, it presents an opportunity to combat the behavior by eliminating sources of reinforcement. Iwata, Dorsey, Silfer, Bauman, and Richman (1994) have conducted an experimental functional analysis of self-injurious which sheds some new light onto this subject.
Purpose of the Study
Primarily, this research was conducted to better understand how self-injurious behaviors are maintained and how to correct them. In this study, potential reinforcing consequences are tested to see how they will influence the frequency of self-injurious behavior. All the contingencies tested in the study replicate ones that very often occur in real caregiving and educational environments. The finding of this research could be applied to help avoid the accidental reinforcement of this type of behavior.
Participants and Setting
The participants were nine children from the age 19 months to 17 years, there were eight boys and one girl. All the children were receiving care at the John F. Kennedy Institute. All of the children were developmentally delayed, and exhibited at least one type of self-injurious behavior before being selected to participat...
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...icipants is that self-injurious behavior was least frequent in the unrestricted play condition. Other conditions do not seem to predict levels of responding in any significant way. What consequences will function as reinforcers is unique to each child.
Analysis and Critique
The largest limitation to any claims made by the researchers is the extreme variation in the results. The researchers themselves state “whether or not it [this study] will contribute to a more thorough understanding of the etiology of self-injury remains to be seen.” A larger sample could have perhaps provided greater significance, however researching self-injurious behavior clearly presents ethical difficulty rendering scaling-up highly impractical. It is extremely impressive that the researchers were able to conduct this study ethically even with the relatively small number of participants.
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