What I Wish I Knew About Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Many people who work in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) understand some core things about positive and negative reinforcement. If you want to brush up on what these terms mean and the difference between reinforcement and punishment, check out our posts on Accessible ABA: Negative Reinforcement is NOT Punishment, Explaining Positive Reinforcement is NOT Bribery and Understanding Consequence Interventions.

Positive and negative reinforcement occur when a consequence follows a behavior and the behavior occurs more often in the future. Positive reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is added and negative reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is removed. Let’s take a look at what you should know about these principles.

This video by Autism Training Solutions provides an overview of these interventions.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement Occur with or without Planning

Positive and negative reinforcement occur whether you plan for it or not. Throughout the day reinforcement follows behavior, causing the behavior to be more likely to occur in the future. It’s up to you to be intentional about which behaviors receive reinforcement.

With careful planning, positive and negative reinforcement strengthen and teach new skills. At the same time, if you’re not careful, they also strengthen maladaptive behavior. Children engage in maladaptive behavior because it works for them, or it has in the past. If you fail to make a plan, the wrong behaviors may be reinforced.

For behaviors you identify as important to target for reduction or increase, evaluate the contingencies already in effect. Collect a variety of data, including ABC data, preference assessment data, and scatterplot data to determine the contingencies that evoke and suppress those behaviors you plan to target. Develop an intervention plan and train staff. For more information on writing effective intervention plans, read our post: Behavior Plan: Crafting a Well-Written Intervention Plan.

Use Positive Reinforcement to Treat Escape-Maintained Behavior

Negative reinforcement of functional communication provides a method for children to escape a task, stimulus or situation they find aversive using adaptive behavior. Professionals teach children to request the termination of an activity or a break in order to escape from the demand. This results in positive behavior change, but does not necessarily lead to improved compliance with demands.

An article by Piazza et al. (1997) discusses the use of both positive and negative reinforcement to reduce destructive escape-maintained behavior. The authors of The Use of Positive and Negative Reinforcement in the Treatment of Escape-Maintained Destructive Behavior found that destructive behavior decreased and compliance increased with the application of tangible reinforcement, even when destructive behavior resulted in a break from the demand.

A combination of positive reinforcement for compliance and negative reinforcement for functional communication may result in the best outcomes for some children who engage in escape-maintained behavior. Carefully consider the motivating operations present for the child you work with when developing a plan to address escape-maintained behavior.

The Need for a Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement is Under Debate

Programs to teach principles of Applied Behavior Analysis include significant discussion around the difference between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, as well as between positive punishment and negative punishment. Some professionals debate the need for this distinction.

Differentiating between these classes of reinforcement and punishment is meant to assist professionals in establishing clarity; however, because the distinction is small, this may result in more confusion than clarity. Many professionals have studied the chart below to determine the differences; however, the differences may be too small for us to accurately determine.

Positive and negative reinforcement and punishment
Positive and negative reinforcement and punishment

In the article Positive and Negative Reinforcement, a Distinction that is no Longer Necessary; or a Better way to Talk About Bad Things, Michael (1975) argues that in order for a stimulus to be added (positive reinforcement) that stimulus must be absent and in order for a stimulus to be removed (negative reinforcement) that stimulus must be present. This makes the distinction between the 2 terms possibly “unnecessary and unreal.”

Baron and Galizio (2005) evaluate whether or not a distinction between these 2 forms of reinforcement is necessary or if it adds unnecessary confusion. Read Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Should the Distinction Be Preserved? to learn more. Read Is the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment Necessary? for our perspective on the debate.

Reinforcement Does NOT Need to be Tangible

Tangible reinforcement is commonly associated with ABA. Professionals commonly apply arbitrary rewards based on results of preference or reinforcer assessments. While this results in positive behavior change, it may not be necessary for all children or in all situations. In addition, professionals must develop a plan to thin schedules of reinforcement to closely match what is available in the natural environment.

Chadwick and Day (1971) found that social reinforcement was effective in improving academic performance of children when it followed a period of access to tangible reinforcement. Systematic Reinforcement: Academic Performance of Underachieving Students discusses sustained positive outcomes with a combination of tangible and social reinforcement.

Key Takeaways

  1. Be mindful of contingencies that already exist for the child you work with. Are maladaptive behaviors encountering reinforcement? Are adaptive behaviors already achieving reinforcement? Careful planning and evaluation of existing contingencies is necessary prior to implementing any new intervention.
  2. While negatively reinforcing functional communication for escape-maintained behavior results in a decrease of challenging behavior, it doesn’t necessarily teach compliance. Consider whether positive reinforcement of compliant behavior is right for the child you work with and consider including that in your intervention plan.
  3. Learn the terminology but don’t be a slave to it. Don’t get caught up on whether the intervention you choose is positive or negative. Determine what behavior you want to reinforce and how you plan to reinforce it.
  4. Examine all potential sources of reinforcement and avoid relying on tangible reinforcers out of habit. Social reinforcement, especially when previously paired with tangible reinforcement, offers effective results for many children. Always develop a plan to thin schedules of reinforcement for tangible items while increasing the value of social reinforcement that is commonly available in the natural environment.