Reinforcement vs Punishment

Navigating the complex world of special needs vocabulary can be challenging and sometimes frustrating, especially when words mean one thing in common usage, and a different thing in therapeutic situations. Your ABA professional may use words in a different way than you do.  Two of the most frequently used words that might cause some confusion are “punishment” and “reinforcement”.

In common usage, punishment is something bad, a penalty for acting in an unwanted way.  A child disobeys his parent, and the child gets punished by losing access to electronics.  The desired effect of the punishment is that the child will not disobey again. Reinforcement, on the other hand, is a reward or a prize for doing something right.  A child cleans her room when asked and gets to watch her favorite show on TV.

In clinical usage, reinforcement and punishment have slightly different and more specific meanings.  Applied Behavior Analysis follows B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning (more information here).  Simply stated, behavior can be shaped by finding meaningful consequences.  The goal of reinforcement procedures is to increase behavior. The goal of punishment procedures is to decrease behavior.

To confuse things even more, there is the addition of the terms positive and negative when referring to reinforcement and punishment.  In the ABA world, positive means adding something and negative means taking away something.  Positive reinforcement increases the target behavior by adding something preferred (good).  Positive punishment decreases the target behavior by adding something aversive (bad).  Negative reinforcement increases the target behavior by taking away something aversive.  Negative punishment decreases the target behavior by taking away something preferred.   

In the following example, a student’s “target behavior” is not paying attention to her teacher, or off-task behavior.  We can try to increase her attending, or “on task” behavior, through reinforcement, or decrease her off-task behavior through punishment.

Target Behavior: 
Something Added:
Something Removed:
We want to increase attending behavior POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
Set timer for one minute, earn a sticker (adding preferred) for each minute student displays attending behavior.
Contingent on attending behavior, the student earns a break from demands  (removing aversive).
We want to decrease off-task behavior POSITIVE PUNISHMENT
For every instance of off-task behavior during a lesson, the student has to write a paragraph about paying attention (adding aversive).
Student loses minutes of free-play time (removing preferred) for each instance of off-task behavior during a lesson.

The BACB’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts  (click here for link), which is used by ABA professionals, states that reinforcement procedures should always be utilized first.  Punishment procedures may become necessary when reinforcement options are exhausted. Only then are we ethically permitted to consider punishment procedures, which demands special requirements (increased supervision, training, and oversight) will be a part of the program.  It is important to understand the goals in your child’s treatment plan.  Your BCBA’s job is to explain what the goals are and how they plan to achieve the goals. If you have questions about the terminology used in the treatment plan, ask to have it explained in a way that makes sense to you.

By Verbal Beginnings’ Michelle Hausman, RBT.

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