Reinforcement or Punishment


What is Reinforcement and Punishment in Applied Behavior Analysis?

Perhaps the most difficult part of training parents, or training aspiring registered behavior technicians, is taking them through the process of unlearning everything they know about punishment and reinforcement. See, in Applied Behavior Analysis reinforcement is not reinforcement and punishment is not punishment, unless, of course, it is. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

“I provide positive reinforcement throughout the day, but nothing changes.”


“Yes, when he is bad I send him to his room as punishment. But I don’t think it’s making a difference.”

What the parents just described above is the traditional way of viewing reinforcement and punishment. Instead of viewing the two procedures through the lense of how each affects future behavior, or the function of the procedure, parents and technicians tend to view these procedures through the lense of how each looks, or the form of the procedure. Traditionally, giving someone ice cream might be considered reinforcement, while going to the principal’s office might be considered punishment. Usually, reinforcement and punishment are delivered due to a three-term behavior contingency.

But, consider a student who loves the school principal. Last week, this student was sent to the principal’s office for playing on his phone in class as “punishment.” This week, the student played on his phone in every class and was sent to the principal’s office four times. Does that sound like a punishment to you? In fact, it’s the opposite. Allowing the student to leave class to see the principal only served to reinforce the behavior of playing on the phone in class. Hopefully you are starting to understand the distinction, and why the distinction is important.

What is Reinforcement?

First, I should break this down even more. Reinforcement is merely the act of delivering or removing a stimulus. The reinforcer is the stimulus that actually changes the chance of future behavior. But, technicalities aside, in applied behavior analysis, reinforcement increases the chance of a behavior happening in the future. And that’s final. I don’t care if ice cream was positive reinforcement for you growing up. Unless it is changing the behavior of your child or client, it is not reinforcing to them. And that’s the key. We are all different. What is reinforcing to me, might not be reinforcing to you. Additionally, even if I like something, it might not be reinforcing to me. The only way you’ll actually know if something is serving as a reinforcer is if you monitor the behavior change. Is the behavior increasing or maintaining when you deliver the stimuli following a behavior? If so, there is a good chance that stimuli is serving as a reinforcer.

What is Punishment?

Let’s apply the same line of thinking that we just used for reinforcement. Punishment is the act of delivering or removing a stimulus. The punisher is the stimulus that is changing the behavior. There is that word again – changing. One more time for the people in the back, if the behavior is not changing then you are neither reinforcing not punishing the behavior. Full stop. In applied behavior analysis, punishment decreases the chance of a behavior happening in the future. Again, what is punishing to me might not be punishing to you. Timeout is not necessarily a punishment unless the behavior that it follows decreases. Most people pick up on reinforcement quicker, but struggle with punishment. It is ingrained in us that certain things are punishing. That just isn’t the case. ABA principals take precedent. Nothing is reinforcing or punishing until we observe a change in behavior.

Change the Way You Think

This will be an adjustment. You have a long learning history of “reinforcement” and “punishment.” But it’s time to unlearn that history. From now on you will see the world through the lens of applied behavior analysis. As a BCBA, this is my favorite part of the job. You will actually start to see the world complete;y different once you start applying ABA to every day life. Whenever you see something and think “punishment” or “reinforcement”, instead think, “did the behavior change.”

For more, check out my RBT task list video on this page. I also have a YouTube channel that I update regularly: RBT Competency and Exam Study Guides.

If you are a BCBA, you might enjoy my other blogs found here: BCBA Blog

For BCBA Study Materials check out BCBA Exam

If you would like to submit a guest blog post, email me at