Home » Blog » Parenting » Make a Phone Call, Shock a Child

Make a Phone Call, Shock a Child

You’d swear I made this up just to capture some sort of weird headlines for the holidays. I wish.

What would you say if I told you there existed a “school” in Massachusetts that caters to the most troubled youth the state has to offer. Using a set of behavioral modification techniques, they try their best to teach their students, while trying to maintain some sense of order. They have 250 adults and children at the school at any given time, and focus on serving people with autism, mental retardation, and emotional problems.

Sounds okay, right? Say what you want about behavior modification techniques, but there’s a solid research base to back up much of their use and effectiveness. Well, most techniques.

What about administering electric shocks to children? Surely we don’t do that today in modern society, right?

Well, we do. And we do it with a system called SIBIS. Every single day.

But here’s where it gets really weird. According to a story in today’s Boston Globe, the school administered electrical shocks to two children based solely upon a prank phone call made to the school by an ex-student.

Take some time to take that in. The school — the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center — delivered 77 electrical shocks to one child and 29 electrical shocks to another child based solely upon a single phone call to the school. By an ex-student, posing as a supervisor.

This occurred in August, but was only made public when the state released a report about the incident this week. To the school’s credit, they notified the police “within hours” of the incident. And the school has assured the public it has put new safeguards in place to prevent this from happening again: “Corrigan, the spokesman for the center, said he is confident the August case will not be repeated.”

But such comments beg the question. How can a school that already has a reputation because of its use of electrical shock as a behavior modification technique in children not already have such safeguards in place in the first place? I mean, shouldn’t shocks — and we’re talking electrical shocks here — only be administered based upon something equivalent to a written prescription by a doctor?

* * *

You see, when it comes to administering electrical shocks to a human, the research gets a little… murky. One of the systems widely used at this school is called SIBIS. And of the 11 (yes, all of 11) citations in PsycINFO, the psychology research database, most are single case studies. Most are also at least 10 years old. Doing a search on “electric and behavior and modification and child” results in 31 citations. Again, mostly single case studies and most older than 10 years. Some are editorial, and some are describing the controversy regarding administering electrical shocks to children.

In other words, the research base for using electrical shock on children is a little thin. SIBIS is a long-standing controversial technique within child psychology and is largely not used as a mainstream treatment.

Helpfully, the JRC hosts its own site, Use of Skin-Shock at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) (note the implication of the use of the domain, “”). Lots of links to paper presentations at conferences and videos. Not a lot of peer-reviewed research.

There are many “effective treatments” that for ethical and moral reasons we no longer allow. Perhaps SIBIS should be one of them.

This time, however, people aren’t sitting around waiting for the JRC to stop this treatment:

Top officials in New York and Washington, D.C., where many of the center’s students originate, have called for a stop to the controversial shock treatments at the school.

Yesterday, in a prepared statement, state Senator Brian Joyce called on officials to more strictly limit and regulate the use of shock therapy in the state.

Indeed. Especially on the state’s most vulnerable citizens — its children.

Read the full article: Students in Canton given electrical shocks after prank call, report says. The report was published by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.

Make a Phone Call, Shock a Child

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

9 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Make a Phone Call, Shock a Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Dec 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.