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Positive/Negative Reinforcement and Punishment: What’s the Difference and How to Use Them Successfully in Behavior Plans

By April 30, 2018Blogs

Overall, reinforcement, both positive and negative, is used to increase a behavior. Positive reinforcement involves adding something that is desired or rewarding that increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. For example, giving dessert for finishing all of their dinner. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something that is aversive or undesired in order to increase the desired behavior. For example, when you put your seat belt on in the car, it stops beeping at you. Alternatively, punishment is used to decrease an undesired or inappropriate behavior. For example, time out for hitting, or getting a ticket for speeding.
Research shows that reinforcement tends to be more effective in modifying behavior. Why is that? While both punishment and reinforcement help to modify behavior, they do this differently. Reinforcement teaches the more desirable behavior by rewarding it, while punishment teaches the undesired behavior by giving a consequence for it. Therefore, punishment only teaches what they are not supposed to do, rather than the appropriate thing to do to get there needs met. So, reinforcement teaches a clearer understanding of what is expected and appropriate.

Positive reinforcement has been found to be more effective overall, as rewards tend to be more motivating. In addition, it helps teach how to get needs and wants met. Whereas, negative reinforcement teaches escape/avoidance. It teaches that by doing one thing they can escape or avoid another thing, which is negatively effective when anxiety is present.
The goal of a behavior plan is to decrease one behavior and increase an alternative behavior. In order to help this occur successfully, both punishment and reinforcers, ideally positive reinforcers, should be used. Punishment, if the choice is made to continue behaving inappropriately, and reinforcers, when the choice is made to behave appropriately. For example, if hitting is being targeted, a punishment (i.e., time out, losing screen time) would be given if the child chooses to hit, while a positive reinforcer (i.e., extra screen time, a special outing) would be given if the child chooses to use appropriate language instead of hitting. This approach helps teach children and prepares them for the real world by teaching accountability and how to follow a contract. They are rewarded when they choose to follow through with the plan/contract and learn that consequences occur when they choose not to.
Things that can help behavior plans work: No yelling, no belittling/shaming, no anger, no frustration, consistency and following through, setting clear and understood expectations, using both positive reinforcement and punishment, keep it simple and make sure it’s realistic, remember to give the reward when it’s been earned (children will often remind parents if the reward is forgotten, and if they don’t, it is a sign that the reward is not motivating enough)
Behavior Modification Strategies to Help Empower Children to Make Good Behavior Choices

  • Choose 1 specific behavior to target: A behavior that is dangerous/most disruptive.
  • Notice/identify triggers: Observe to identify any consistencies present (i.e., sleep, diet, changes in routine, specific activities, specific shows or games, etc.)
  • Adjust based on triggers: Gain control through triggers. (i.e., having snacks available if occurs when hungry, prioritize sleep if it occurs when tired, etc.)
  • Positive reinforcement = most effective: Reward desirable behaviors to increase them.
  • Consequences should be used carefully: Teaches accountability, problem-solving, and responsibility. It’s important to be consistent and follow through, ignore inappropriate or bad behavior, use rewards or praise.
  • Teach self-regulation: Important when a child is impulsive. Allows opportunity to make a better choice. Use clear rules and expectations, follow a consistent routine, provide reminders and chances to make a choice, positive reinforcement, follow through, and be a good model of appropriate behavior.
  • When possible, offer choices: This empowers the child, making them feel more in control. Only provide options that are actually available.
  • Provide opportunities to spend quality time together: Set aside 10-15 minutes every day to spend uninterrupted quality time with children, so they don’t feel the need to act out to get attention.
  • Each behavior has a function: Identifying the function of a behavior can help in creating a behavior plan as it guides it and makes sure that the reinforcer is appropriate and fulfills the same function.