Consequences: A Better Understanding of Reinforcement and Punishment

When it comes to consequences, most people think of punishment first. And although punishment typically can make a behavior stop quickly, it is not always effective in decreasing the future likelihood that the behavior will reoccur. For example, saying, “No!” to your child while they are reaching into the cookie jar may cause them to stop. But it doesn’t teach them how to ask for a cookie, and it doesn’t decrease their behavior – who’s to say they won’t go back for a cookie when you’re not looking? Behavior analysts are proponents of reinforcement as a consequence. Prompting or teaching the child to ask before getting the cookie can be reinforced by either giving them a cookie, or letting them know when they are able to have a cookie (“Thanks for asking, you can have a cookie after dinner.”)
It is easy to make mistakes when it comes to using consequences, including reinforcing undesirable behaviors, and using ineffective punishment. The table below is a summary of the definition of reinforcement and punishment. Under the table are some examples of each type of consequence including, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.
Reinforcement:
Positive (+adding stimulus) – presentation of a stimulus that increases the likelihood that it will reoccur
Negative (-removing stimulus) – removal of a stimulus that increases the likelihood that it will reoccur
Punishment:
Positive (+adding stimulus) – presentation of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood that it will reoccur
Negative (-removing stimulus) – removal of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood that it will reoccur
Example of Positive Reinforcement:
Child requests to play playdoh politely, and parent gives the playdoh to the child. Likelihood of requesting playdoh increases. (yay!)
Child screams and cries and points to Play-Doh, and parent gives the Play-Doh to the child. Likelihood of screaming for playdoh increases. (oops…)
Example of Negative Reinforcement:
Child is hungry, eats a snack, hunger goes away. Likelihood of getting a snack next time hunger occurs increases. (yay!)
Child tantrums when homework is presented. Homework is removed. Likelihood of tantrum next time homework is presented increases. (oops…)
Example of Positive Punishment:
Child screams and cries and points to playdoh. Parent puts the child in timeout for screaming and crying. Likelihood of screaming for Play-Doh decreases. **Note: this does not teach the child the appropriate way to request Play-Doh.
Example of Negative Punishment:
Siblings are fighting over who gets to use the swing. Parent takes swing down. Likelihood of fighting over swing decreases. **Note: this does not teach the appropriate way to take turns.
It’s important to keep in mind that punishment is not always effective in decreasing the behavior. Punishment can be effective when we need something to stop immediately to keep someone safe. Punishment teaches a child what not to do. However, it does not teach a child what the appropriate way to behave is or how to earn what they want. Before using punishment, try to prompt the child to use the appropriate form of communication, to get out of, or obtain access to what they need/want. If you are able to prompt the child to requests appropriately, then you can use positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood that the will request appropriately in the future!

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