Negative reinforcement and Positive Punishment: What this means.

In the field of ABA, you might see the words “reinforcement” and “punishment” being used quite a bit. With both of these terms, they can be further broken down into “positive” and “negative.” You might be thinking, “Wait, negative reinforcement and positive punishment…those sound pretty contradicting!” Well, let’s go into these terms in a little more detail and see how they really affect behaviors.

Reinforcement and what do we mean.

When we’re talking about reinforcement, we are referring to a particular behavior increasing in frequency, or how much it occurs. This could be following the presentation of a stimulus (positive reinforcement) or the removal of a stimulus (negative reinforcement). Here is an example of each:

  • Positive:
    • Sammy finishes his homework after school, so he can have 30 minutes of video game time. The addition of video game time increases the behavior of finishing his homework every day after school.
  • Negative:
    • Sammy is given broccoli to eat with his dinner. When he sees the broccoli, he starts to yell and cry, so his mom removes the broccoli from his plate. Now, every time he sees broccoli on his plate, he yells and cries. The removal of the broccoli increases the behavior of yelling and crying in the future.

A very important note to keep in mind is that in both of these examples, the behavior INCREASED in the future. Let’s say that even after being given video game time, if Sammy’s behavior of finishing his homework did NOT increase, then this would not be considered reinforcement.

Okay, let’s move on to punishment.

When talking about punishment, we are referring to a particular behavior decreasing in frequency, or how much it occurs. Again, this could be following the presentation of a stimulus (positive punishment) or the removal of a stimulus (negative punishment). Here’s an example of each:

  • Positive:
    • Sammy picks his nose while sitting at the dinner table with his family. His mom yells at him in front of everyone. The addition of the reprimand decreases the nose picking behavior, at the dinner table, in the future.
  • Negative:
    • Sammy and his brother keep arguing over what movie to watch, so their mom takes away TV privileges for the rest of the night. The removal of watching TV decreases the behavior of arguing in the future.

Similar to the examples given above for reinforcement, the behaviors in these examples DECREASED in the future. If Sammy’s nose picking at the dinner table did not decrease, then the reprimand given would NOT be considered a punishment.

It’ll be very important to remember how the consequences put in place affect the behavior. Being given a time out may seem like punishment, but if your child’s behavior doesn’t decrease, then it just might be time to reassess the situation.

This blog post was written by Archana Tompkins, BCBA

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