Positive vs. Negative Punishment in ABA Therapy

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This is the first blog of a series breaking down positive and negative punishment. The goal of this paper is to get people thinking about how they might use positive reinforcement in place of punishment as an alternative for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The “negative reinforcement examples” are used in ABA therapy to help children learn new behaviors. Negative reinforcement is used when a child does something they aren’t supposed to do and then gets a reward for it.


Punishment is a common and successful means of educating an autistic client that certain actions are undesirable in ABA treatment. But that’s not the way we’ve always thought of punishment, and it should only be used as a last option.

Negative punishment takes away a stimulus in order to motivate the client to undertake good behaviors in order to reclaim it. Positive punishment introduces an unwelcome stimulus in order to motivate the client to do better in order to have it removed.

While neither kind of punishment is intrinsically harmful, it must be implemented with caution and consistency in order to be successful.

In ABA Therapy, what is punishment?

“Punishment” in applied behavior analysis refers to the possibility that an undesired behavior will cease or be reduced as a consequence of a subsequent intervention.

In general human psychology, it’s a well-known notion. People are less inclined to repeat an action if the consequences are unfavorable.

Despite its implications, punishment is neither good nor harmful in and of itself. It simply states the intervention used to attempt to modify the unwanted behavior.

Punishment should only be employed after other methods of reinforcement have failed. It should always be used in conjunction with other approaches to promote more suitable conduct.

There are two types of punishment in ABA therapy: positive punishment and negative punishment.

What Is Positive Punishment and How Does It Work?

Positive punishment is adding a modifier to a behavior after it has occurred, and then watching the behavior decrease. Receiving a speeding ticket after driving too fast is, in general, a type of positive punishment. It should reduce the driver’s desire to drive faster and increase the likelihood of not breaking the speed limit again. The ticket is the positive penalty in this case.

In ABA treatment, what does positive punishment entail? If a kid engages in off-task conduct, the therapist may extend the time until the child receives his or her incentive.

The positive penalty in this case is the increase of time and a decrease in off-task conduct. To fulfill the requirements for positive punishment, just providing a consequence is insufficient. A effective decrease in undesired behavior is required. The reward is a kind of reinforcement, designed to promote on-task behavior and job completion.

What Is Negative Punishment and How Does It Work?

When something is taken away from a person, negative punishment occurs, and the unpleasant conduct changes. If an employee is deducted pay for being unprofessional, but subsequently adjusts their conduct to conform to corporate norms, they have experienced a negative penalty.

Negative punishment in ABA treatment might include taking away a toy or incentive from a kid who is not remaining on task, followed by the child sticking to the job until it is completed.

Appropriate Punishment

There are many similarities between positive and negative punishment. Both are punishments found in operant conditioning, which is the study of how individuals modify their behavior in response to added and deleted modifiers.

To be effective, punishment treatment requires that the punishment (whether positive or negative) be delivered regularly so that the client learns the link between their off-task conduct, the penalty, and the reward for keeping on task after the punishment.

Any variation from this paradigm increases the possibility that the client may not comprehend why they are being punished, reducing the punishment’s efficacy.

Punishment Interventions Should Be Consistent

To ensure that punishment therapy is used appropriately, the therapist must determine, in collaboration with the client’s treatment team, whether the punishment methods (both positive and negative) will effectively communicate to the client that certain types of inappropriate behavior should be changed. Will the client be able to improve their conduct in the future as a result of the disciplinary interventions? Have previous approaches failed to meet these objectives?

If the link between the intervention and the intended change in behavior is found to be too weak, it is a warning that the punishment intervention is not functioning. It should then be stopped to prevent the client from becoming distressed.

It’s also conceivable that, even after receiving a negative or positive punishment, undesired conduct may rise briefly. This is a common occurrence caused by the client’s adjustment to the treatments.

The intended behavior will develop as predicted if the intervention is used regularly (and in combination with other techniques). This is why it is critical to employ punishment regularly. It’s also critical that the therapist be prepared to pull down the punitive intervention and review the issue if it becomes evident that the surge isn’t only transient.

Punishment should only be used as a last option in ABA treatment. It might have major negative effects if not taken appropriately. Clients who are prone to reacting angrily to interventions, for example, may suffer increased rates of aggressiveness. This is also why, in the absence of other solutions, punishment should not be utilized.

Punishment & Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a comparable notion in applied behavior analysis. Punishment and reinforcement are comparable yet distinct in ABA treatment.

In ABA treatment, positive reinforcement is a stimulus that encourages or reinforces a client’s desired behavior once that behavior is shown. As a result of the link between the conduct and the positive penalty, the client is more likely to choose the favored behavior in the future.

Positive reinforcement may take the form of:

  • Praise for a pupil who completed their assignment.

  • Rewarding a youngster for a good report card.

  • Treating a youngster for doing something on-task, such as picking up their toys.

When an unfavorable stimulus is withdrawn after a client exhibits a certain behavior, this is known as negative reinforcement. Because the undesired stimulus is gone, the odds of the desired action increasing. For example, a youngster may do a task in order for their parents to stop asking them to (thereby removing the chastisement).

Reinforcement Learning Properly

Negative reinforcement is not a kind of punishment. Negative reinforcement improves a desired behavior by eliminating an undesirable stimulus, while punishment reduces a behavior by adding or removing an undesirable stimulus.

In both circumstances, the intervention can only be deemed really effective if it is carried out regularly and results in the client’s behavior being changed.

Reinforcement in ABA treatment aims to promote a desired behavior, and punishment (either negative or positive) aims to reduce an unwanted behavior. Positive reinforcement is simply the addition of a positive stimulus to raise the likelihood of a response. Negative reinforcement is when a negative stimulus is removed in order to improve the likelihood of a response.

Pros & Cons of Punishment

Punishment is often employed to aid clients in ABA treatment, although it is not without dispute.

According to a Psychology Today article, if the punishment is given incorrectly or inconsistently, the client will not grasp the link between their actions and the penalty. Increasing the sentence now might be very distressing for the client.

Furthermore, although the term “punishment” has a specific meaning in psychology, that meaning is lost in translation when individuals outside of the discipline hear it. This may create a big barrier that some parents are unwilling to pass, setting a highly false and deceptive tone for the treatment.

Pros & Cons of Reinforcement

Reinforcement, on the other hand, has its own set of disadvantages. If reinforcement is not handled correctly, it may lead to clients being more reliant on programmed reinforcement modifiers than natural modifiers, much as it might with punishment treatments. For example, even outside of treatment, a client may begin to anticipate the same type of reward for desired conduct. They may revert to their pre-intervention behavior if they don’t get that form of reinforcement.

Reinforcement, like punishment, must be utilized consistently. Without it, the appropriate reaction that first appeared might deteriorate to the point where the behavior declines or vanishes completely. Extinction is a psychological process in which the desired behavior goes extinct.

Is it true that being positive is preferable than being negative?

In psychological terms, the notion of punishment is not intrinsically negative. It’s how the majority of us learn not to do certain things.

Positive punishment is not always preferable to negative punishment in ABA treatment, and vice versa. Clients may sometimes react better to the addition of a stimulus in order to learn not to participate in improper conduct. Other times, the best course of action is to remove a stimulation so that the client can concentrate on keeping on goal.

The ability of the client to grasp how the addition or removal of a stimulus is linked to their conduct decides whether positive or negative punishment should be employed in ABA treatment.

The punishment may seem overwhelming, distressing, and even cruel to people with significant cognitive disabilities caused by autism. Indeed, this kind of misapplication of punishment treatment has resulted in several examples of ethical misconduct as well as psychological harm to the client. Clients that have a higher level of cognitive awareness and presence may benefit the most from this technique.

Positive punishment is often more successful than negative consequences in improving behavior, and most therapists would try positive therapies first before turning to negative ones. This, too, will be determined by the client’s aptitude and how well they react to the treatments as part of their overall autism treatment plan.


Psychology’s Study of Punishment. (In April of 2020). Mind, you’re a genius.

12 Examples of Positive Punishment & Negative Reinforcement. (April 2020). Positive Psychology.

What Is Negative Punishment and How Does It Work? (May 2020). Parenting for Brain.

Examples of Successful Habit Formation Using Operant Conditioning Theory (In June of 2020). Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the

Getting the Most Out of Punishments Family education is important.

Presentation And Treatment Options For Aggression In Autism Spectrum Disorder (June 2016). Treatment of Neuropsychiatric Disorders

Positive Reinforcement in Everyday Situations: 7 Examples (Updated November 2019) Psych Central is a website dedicated to mental health.

What Is Negative Reinforcement and How Does It Work? (In February of 2020) Today’s Medical News

“Negative Reinforcement” is a common misconception about science. (2010, January). Today’s Psychology.

In ABA Parent Training, Punishment is used (March 2019). Psych Central is a website dedicated to mental health.

In Psychology, Extinction Is Defined. (April 2019). Mind, you’re a genius.

Here’s Why Rewards Are Better Than Punishment. (From September 2008) Today’s Psychology.

Positive reinforcement is a type of reward that encourages desirable behavior. Positive punishment, on the other hand, discourages undesirable behavior. ABA therapy uses both positive and negative reinforcement. Reference: example of positive reinforcement.

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