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Reinforcement and Punishment - How to Approach These Concepts in ABA Parent Training

Reinforcement and Punishment - How to Approach These Concepts in ABA Parent Training

As behavior analysts, we understand what the terms “reinforcement” and “punishment” mean in the field of applied behavior analysis.


We know that reinforcement refers to the idea that a behavior increases in frequency after the presentation or removal of a stimulus follows that behavior. Reinforcement can be further defined by whether it is positive or negative reinforcement.

  • Positive reinforcement is when a stimulus follows a behavior and that behavior increases in frequency of occurrence in the future.

  • Negative reinforcement is when a stimulus is removed or avoided following a behavior and that behavior also increases in frequency of occurrence in the future.

Punishment is basically the opposite of the concept of reinforcement. Punishment, in the field of applied behavior analysis, refers to when a behavior decreases in frequency due to the addition or removal of a stimulus after the behavior. Punishment can also be further defined by whether it is positive or negative punishment.

  • Positive punishment is when a stimulus follows a behavior and that behavior decreases in frequency of occurrence in the future.

  • Negative punishment is when a stimulus is removed after a behavior and the behavior decreases in frequency of occurrence in the future.


Reinforcement is not that common of a term in the general population especially when people are talking about behavior and learning.

Definitions of “reinforcement” from the Merriam Webster Dictionary include:

  • “the action of strengthening or encouraging something: the state of being reinforced”

    • Reinforced means, “to strengthen by additional assistance, material, or support: make stronger or more pronounced”

  • “something that strengthens or encourages something: such as

    • an addition of troops, supplies, etc., that augments the strength of an army or other military force

    • something designed to provide additional strength (as in a weak area)

    • a response to someone's behavior that is intended to make that person more likely to behave that way again

  • in psychology : the action of causing a subject to learn to give or to increase the frequency of a desired response that in classical conditioning involves the repeated presentation of an unconditioned stimulus (such as the sight of food) paired with a conditioned stimulus (such as the sound of a bell) and that in operant conditioning involves the use of a reward following a correct response or a punishment following an incorrect response”

Sometimes people think of “reinforcement” as meaning “reward.” In the general population, people may see a reward as an experience that results in a pleasant or positive affective response. In behavioral psychology, reward is sometimes used to explain a stimulus that increases the frequency of a behavior when that stimulus is provided after the identified behavior (White, 2011).

When looking at reward in this way, it can be seen as the same thing as reinforcement. But when we are looking at the situation strictly from an ABA perspective, we would describe this definition of reward as being like the use of a positive reinforcer. However, reinforcement may also occur as a result of removal or avoidance of a stimulus (negative reinforcement). In this usage reward is a synonym of reinforcement.


Although many fields have their own set of terminology, they use to describe concepts related to their area of specialty, the field of ABA can sometimes create confusion or misunderstanding. This is specifically an issue when we are working with families.

The nature of human language development includes the fact that people create meaning from words based on personal experience, connections of the word to various stimuli, and derived arbitrary relations. We can see learn about this concept in more detail when we study Relational Frame Theory (Gross & Fox, 2009).

Even from the field of ABA to other areas of human services, such as child development or pediatric care, we see a difference in how the term “punishment” is used. For example, in the Journal: Pediatrics and Child Health, an article addresses discipline and punishment. They state, “The word discipline means to impart knowledge and skill – to teach.”

They compare the concept of discipline to the concept of punishment. In the context of their description of parenting skills that use discipline, they seem to approach punishment as a harmful concept and an unhelpful parenting strategy. Although their ideas have merit and many other explanations like this in the field of child development and children’s behavioral health have scientific support, ABA professionals must take into consideration the differences in terminology and meanings used from within ABA as compared to outside of ABA.

Another academic resource provides a definition of the concept of corporal punishment. They state that, “Corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behavior. (A report from the advocacy committee, 2003).


It is always important to consider how our services comply with the BACB’s code of ethics for behavior analysts. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board provides guidance regarding the use of and recommendation of punishment in ABA services.

The Code of Ethic tells us the following in Ethics Item 4.08: Considerations Regarding Punishment Procedures (Professional and Ethical Code, 2014).

  • Recommend reinforcement rather than punishment whenever possible.

  • If reinforcement efforts alone are not effective and punishment procedures are necessary to help the client develop socially significant skills, reinforcement procedures for alternative behaviors must also be included in the treatment.

  • Punishment procedures may only be used without first using reinforcement or thoroughly exploring reinforcement options if the situation involves severe and/or dangerous behaviors which necessitate immediate use of aversive procedures.

  • When using punishment (including aversive procedures), behavior analysts should provide increased support to staff through additional training, supervision, and oversight.

  • Evaluation of any punishment procedures must be evaluated in a timely manner.

  • Modifications to the treatment need to be made if the punishment procedure does not seem to be effective in a reasonable amount of time.

  • When using punishment procedures (or aversive techniques), the behavior analyst also develops a plan to discontinue the use of the procedure and transition back to a focus on using reinforcement.


Since we can see that there are differences in the way in which “reinforcement” and “punishment” are defined and used within the field of ABA as compared to outside the field of ABA, we should take this into consideration when speaking with parents in ABA parent training. Be sure to mindful of parents’ personal ideas and opinions of reinforcement and punishment while also providing information to help them understand the terms from an ABA perspective.

Teaching and approaching this subject with a gentle and empathetic stance will help you to incorporate ABA concepts into your ABA parent training services.



After reviewing this article about applying the concepts of reinforcement and punishment in your ABA parent training services, you may consider trying the following suggestions:

  1. Get the ABA parent training handout here (ENTER YOUR EMAIL ABOVE)

  2. Review the handout on your own.

  3. Plan the date of which upcoming parent training session you will discuss this handout with the parent.

  4. Provide the parent with a copy of the handout and review the information with them. Answer any questions they may have about the concepts and help them to see examples of the concepts within ABA services and as relevant to their child.


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A report from the advocacy committee: policy statement: corporal punishment. (2003). The Canadian child and adolescent psychiatry review = La revue canadienne de psychiatrie de l'enfant et de l'adolescent, 12(1), 18–20.

Effective discipline for children. (2004). Paediatrics & child health, 9(1), 37–50.

Gross, A. C., & Fox, E. J. (2009). Relational frame theory: an overview of the controversy. The Analysis of verbal behavior, 25(1), 87–98. doi:10.1007/bf03393073

Professional and Ethical Code for Behavior Analysts. (2014). Retrieved May 10, 2019, from

Reinforced. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved May 10, 2019, from

Reinforcement. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved May 10, 2019, from

Talking with Parents About Functions of Behavior in ABA Parent Training

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ABA Defined - with a Free ABA Parent Training Handout

ABA Defined - with a Free ABA Parent Training Handout