Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Kazdin: Science shows positive reinforcement works best for defiant children

Alan Kazdin talks about the latest research on children and mental health.

A clinical psychologist who leads the prestigious Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, Alan Kazdin is also a reluctant celebrity whose advice on parenting has captivated his peers and pop culture alike.

It’s an unusual career trajectory for a pioneer in the mental health industry who has dedicated the past 30 years to studying aggressive and oppositional behavior in children and adolescents.

“He’s one of a very few people who’ve been very successful in taking his own research and the research of a very messy field of parenting, and translating it directly to solid, applied advice for parents,” said Deborah Laible, associate professor of psychology.

How to strike that balance between data-driven scientific research and its public consumption provided the underlying current of Kazdin’s lecture at the 2009 Academic Symposium. Laible and Edward Shapiro, director of the College of Education’s Center for Promoting Research to Practice, joined Kazdin on stage for the engaging conversation.

Kazdin talked candidly—and passionately—about evidence-based treatments and scientifically proven interventions throughout the presentation. Contrary to the prevailing attitude that emphasizes punishment for aggressive, oppositional and antisocial behavior in children and adolescents, Kazdin said that research clearly shows that positive reinforcement is more effective.

He spoke with a spirited optimism that belies the uncertain future of those afflicted with mental health concerns: Nearly 80 percent of those with serious psychological issues struggle with their problems well into adulthood.

According to Kazdin, the community pays a price, too. Upwards of $15,000 is spent every year on each child with aggressive and oppositional behavior, making it the most costly mental health problem in the United States.

“As children, they are punished a little more than others,” Kazdin said, “and they have a higher mortality and morbidity rate than others, which is to say they die younger, and are more likely than other people to die of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases.”

Perhaps best known by the public for publishing the “Kazdin Method for Parenting”—a title bestowed on him by the media and publishing industries, he likes to point out—Kazdin is a leading authority on the use of positive opposites and reinforcement when working with defiant children.

‘One of the classic figures in the field of psychology’

Positive reinforcement requires a new level of parental engagement and a “very different kind of effectiveness from a parent: better praise, more purposeful rewards, greater attentiveness to a child,” he explains on his Web site, www.alankazdin.com. “It draws you and your child closer together as it makes you a more effective parent.”

Now, as president of the American Psychological Association, he also sees an opportunity to engage the American public and distinguish valuable research from the legions of self-proclaimed parenting experts whose works line the shelves at neighborhood bookstores.

“In the end, Dr. Kazdin to me is one of those classic figures in the field of psychology who could cross that line into popular culture, but would not lose sight of his basic role as a scientist, and as a clinician, and as an academic,” said Laible, who introduced Kazdin at the event.

Shapiro shares those sentiments. A professor of school psychology with the College of Education, Shapiro questioned Kazdin about the efficacy of positive versus punitive treatments, and held a dialogue about controversial “zero tolerance” policies that have become so prevalent in the education community.

Calling Kazdin’s success in working with parents and children “just phenomenal,” Shapiro questioned why the public has trouble embracing the research.

“The emphasis of your research is grounded in positive experiences. And yet, one of the things we find over and over again is, if you take a look at what’s out there, most of the public insists on using punitive treatments,” Shapiro said.

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--Tom Yencho

Photo by John Kish IV

Posted on Friday, April 17, 2009

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