Using Punishment Without Punishing Your Child


Children playing and receiving positive reinforcement.

When it comes to replacing undesirable behaviors with those that are more appropriate, long-term actions, operant conditioning is often a preferred method of choice. While understanding operant conditioning’s objectives may be straightforward, grasping the differences between punishment and reinforcement, both positive and negative, may take a bit more explaining.

Let’s look at the ins and outs of punishment and reinforcement and how they can be useful in ABA.

  • What is Operant Conditioning?
  • Punishment vs. Reinforcement
  • What is Punishment?
  • What is Reinforcement?
  • Using Punishment Effectively
  • Positive Reinforcement and ABA Therapy
  • Understanding Positive Reinforcement
  • Measuring the Success of Positive Reinforcement


What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is how one learns to increase or decrease specific behaviors. This form of conditioning is possible by making associations between one’s behavior and receiving a positive or negative consequence for that action.


Punishment vs. Reinforcement

In ABA therapy, it’s essential to understand that punishment and reinforcement are not associated with our typical understanding of good versus bad. Nor does it imply any form of physical, verbal, or emotional punishing. Both punishments and reinforcements can be either positive or negative. Let’s break down their meanings, mainly how they apply to children when implementing ABA strategies.

In simplest terms, positive means to add, while negative means to take away.

Often, this refers to a meaningful object or reward, such as:

  • Screen time on an iPad or tv
  • A favorite toy
  • Extra time outdoors


What is Punishment?

Punishment is a term that refers to decreasing specific target behavior. While positive punishment involves adding something unpleasant to a situation to decrease a child’s behavior, negative punishment involves removing something from the situation to decrease the target behavior.


What is Reinforcement?

In contrast, when implementing ABA strategies, reinforcements offer a way to increase a child’s target behavior. Positive reinforcement offers a desirable incentive as a reward to increase, strengthen, or replace a target behavior. Negative reinforcement involves taking the desirable stimulus out of the situation to increase the child’s target behavior.

While it does take a bit of adjustment in our natural thought process – understanding how positives can be useful in punishment and negatives can assist in reinforcements – they can offer astounding long-term results when implemented correctly. These results are particularly true for ABA practices.


How to Punish Your Child Effectively

Using punishment as a behavior-modifying technique can be useful in various situations by parents, teachers, and ABA therapy team members. To clear up any further confusion, think of positive punishment’s primary goal as a tool to deter your child from undesirable behavior. For instance, if your child spent extra time on her iPad while neglecting to make her bed for the day, a parent could add an extra chore, such as gathering up her laundry. In this situation, the parent will use positive punishment – the additional chore – to help her realize she should spend less time on her iPad tomorrow before making up her bed. Doing so will condition her to decrease her screen time, make time to make up her bed, and eliminate the additional chore.

Upset child hugging a teddy bear.

Positive Reinforcement and ABA Therapy

Once science was able to demonstrate that the use of positive reinforcement was successful in creating new behaviors and skills, it slowly began to replace the harsh and abusive treatment of individuals with autism. ABA therapy brought new approaches and success stories, replacing the horrible treatment of behavioral change in those with autism.

The use of positive reinforcement became an essential component in ABA therapy. It plays a critical role in the teaching, replacement, and strengthening of appropriate behaviors. When implementing positive reinforcements correctly and consistently, replacement behaviors become a new, long-term action. The utilization of positive reinforcement becomes a powerful tool for ABA professionals, but also caregivers, parents, and family members who work towards the behavioral goals of children with autism.


Understanding Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement provides undeniable results, making it known for being one of the most effective behavioral management forms for children with autism and behavioral issues. When using positive reinforcement in combination with ABA therapy, potentially harmful behaviors may also be replaced with new, healthier behaviors. Using this style of reward system focuses on finding a reward that is personal to each child. Positive reinforcements should consist of favorite items or privileges your child finds most meaningful and willing to work towards earning. A favorite toy or game on your phone will strengthen the likelihood the child will continue to revert to the new behavior. Ultimately, the objective is for this personalized reward, chosen by your child’s ABA therapist, to provide enough excitement and encouragement, eventually leading to the adoption of new, positive behavior.

If your child’s ABA team is not seeing the demonstration of a desirable behavior or skill, the child will not receive their reward. It is essential to repeat the modeling process as often as necessary, providing your child with ample time to learn and repeat the new skills and behaviors independently. While this may seem a difficult task, your ABA professionals will work closely with you to give plenty of guidance and modeling of each step.

The most meaningful reinforcers help children with autism learn to adopt new behaviors throughout all areas of development, including life skills. The consistent use of positive reinforcement implements change and strengthens reoccurrence. Here’s how the pairing of positive reinforcement with ABA therapy should look:

  • The child demonstrates an undesirable behavior
  • ABA therapist introduces a replacement behavior through modeling, immediately after observing the undesirable behavior
  • A positive reward praises them for using the new behavior
  • When the child begins to revert to the replacement behavior, collecting the reinforcer for a job well done, it will begin to increase the likelihood of future reoccurrence

Mother gives her child a positive reward.

Measuring the Success of Positive Reinforcement

So, how do we measure the success of these ABA strategies using positive reinforcement? Through proper modeling and consistency, new skills and behaviors will begin to reoccur with less guidance. In time, the need for reinforcers to produce these changes will also diminish. Once the child can demonstrate the replacement behavior without prompting or rewards, it officially becomes a successfully mastered goal.

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