Understanding Response Cost in ABA

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What is Response Cost in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

By definition, response cost is a type of punishment procedure in ABA where wanted or previously earned possessions are taken away. This can include tokens, money allowance, physical items such as toys or snacks, or special privileges. This procedure is used with the purpose of ultimately decreasing an undesirable behaviour.

Response cost aims to teach individuals to make more appropriate choices by associating the loss of a valued item or activity with the occurrence of unwanted behaviours. This intervention can be effective in promoting behaviour change and helping individuals with autism or other developmental disorders learn more adaptive behaviours. However, as mentioned, it is a punishment procedure and many steps of assessment and planning must have taken place before implementing a response cost strategy. ABA professionals such as BCBAs use punishment procedures as a last resort when working on behaviours we want to decrease.

The Role of Response Cost in Behavior Modification

Response cost plays a significant role in behaviour modification by taking away something desirable to a learner hoping it will reduce undesirable behaviours and promote positive behaviour change. It involves the implementation of consequences, such as the loss of a reinforcer or privilege, following the occurrence of a certain undesirable behaviour.

The purpose of response cost is to create a clear link between behaviour and its consequences. As the consequence is aversive, it is considered a punishment strategy in ABA. Thereby, motivating individuals to engage in more desirable behaviours to avoid losing valued items or privileges again in the future. This technique is commonly used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to target behaviours that need to be decreased or eliminated. Response cost is typically used alongside a token economy system where a learner has been earning tokens from engaging in desired behaviours, however, if they engaged in something undesirable, they may have some tokens taken away. This then requires them to work harder or take longer to earn what they are working for.

By incorporating response cost into behaviour modification plans, individuals can learn to make more appropriate choices and develop more adaptive behaviours over time.

Implementing Response Cost: Techniques and Procedures

Implementing response cost involves several techniques and procedures that are carefully designed to effectively reduce undesirable behaviours. One commonly used technique is token economy or a tally chart, as mentioned previously, where individuals earn tokens or points for displaying desirable behaviours and lose tokens for engaging in undesirable behaviours. These tokens can then be exchanged for desired rewards or privileges. When tokens are taken away, it provides a distinctive consequence of what not to do next time. No one likes things taken away!

Additionally, the use of a behaviour contract, where individuals and professionals mutually agree to specific behavioural expectations and consequences, can be effective in implementing response cost. As the expectation is mutually decided on, when tokens or points are taken away, it may be less personal to some learners and instead, continue to motivate them to keep going. These techniques require consistent monitoring, data collection, and adherence to predetermined rules and guidelines to ensure their effectiveness in behaviour modification. Behaviour analysts will ensure they have exhausted all reinforcement strategies before considering using response cost strategies. Response cost procedures should also only be used temporarily with a long term plan to resort back to reinforcement strategies that can be maintained.

Advantages and Considerations of Response Cost in ABA Therapy

Response cost, as a technique in ABA therapy, offers several advantages in behavior modification. Firstly, it provides clear and immediate consequences for undesirable behaviors, which can facilitate faster behavior change. By incorporating response cost, individuals can learn to associate the negative consequences of losing rewards or privileges with the targeted behaviors, increasing motivation for positive behavior change. Moreover, response cost can help individuals generalize their learning by promoting self-control and self-monitoring skills beyond therapy sessions.

However, it is crucial to consider individual differences, as response cost may not be suitable for everyone. Factors such as cognitive abilities, emotional regulation, and sensitivity to consequences should be taken into account to ensure that the intervention is appropriate and effective. At the end of the day, having something you worked hard for taken away is not a good feeling, especially if you have no idea why! It can be very frustrating and may possibly lead to unwanted behaviours such as aggression if used in a situation that was not assessed properly. It is also important to balance the use of response cost with positive reinforcement strategies to maintain a supportive, positive and, motivating learning environment. Regular re-assessment and modifications to the response cost procedures may be necessary to address individual needs and optimize outcomes.

Ethical Considerations and Best Practices in Using Response Cost

When utilizing response cost in ABA therapy, ethical considerations and best practices are of utmost importance. It is crucial to ensure that response cost procedures are implemented in a fair and consistent manner, avoiding any form of punishment that is excessive, demeaning, or harmful. Board Certified Behaviour Analysts (BCBAs) follow a strict ethics code to ensure punishment procedures are used correctly and only when necessary.

Open communication and collaboration with the individual and their caregivers are essential to establish clear expectations and understanding of the consequences involved. In addition, it is important to regularly monitor and reassess the effectiveness of response cost interventions to ensure they align with the individual’s goals and needs. Long term planning is crucial to ensure response cost procedures can be faded out.

Ethical guidelines emphasize the importance of maintaining a positive and supportive therapeutic environment, where the focus is on teaching and reinforcing desired behaviours rather than solely punishing undesirable behaviours. Finally, ongoing professional development, supervision, and adherence to ethical codes and guidelines are essential to promote ethical practice and ensure the well-being and progress of individuals receiving ABA therapy with response cost interventions.


What is the response cost technique?

The response cost technique is a type of punishment procedure in ABA where wanted or previously earned possessions are taken away. This can include tokens, money allowance, physical items such as toys or snacks, or special privileges.

What is response cost an example of?

In ABA, response cost is an example of a negative punishment procedure where you take away something preferred in order to decrease a particular behaviour in the future.

What is the main effect of response cost?

While it is true that response cost involves removing something preferred such as a reinforcer following an undesired behaviour, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal of response cost is to increase appropriate behaviours rather than focusing on decreasing inappropriate ones

How do you use response cost in classroom?

Response cost can be implemented in the classroom by establishing a system where students can form groups or teams and can lose a predetermined amount of points or tokens for engaging in undesired behaviours collectively. This loss acts as a consequence and serves to discourage the occurrence of those behaviours, promoting more positive team work and appropriate behaviour in the classroom setting.

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