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BCBABehaviorEarly Intervention

Negative Reinforcement Myths

We’re squashing the negative reinforcement myths.

In ABA Therapy, negative reinforcement is often misunderstood as a term associated with punishment. Because the word “negative” is used, people often think this term means something “bad.” However, this is far from true. Don’t let the “negative” part fool you. Reinforcement is actually a good thing.

In “technical terms,” a reinforcer is the process in which a stimulus is added following behavior, increasing the likelihood that behavior will occur again. In “simple terms,” it means you do something, and because something pleasant becomes of it, you are more likely to do it again. Reinforcers are also defined by the effect they have on behavior. Therefore, it has to increase the likelihood you will behave that way again. A person engages in negative reinforcement if they do something that helps remove or avoid something unpleasant. An example would be teaching a child to say “stop” instead of hitting a peer to block the peer from taking a toy away. If the child begins to say “stop” in a similar situation, the behavior of saying “stop” increases.

Another reason negative reinforcement has become a term associated with meaning something “bad” is that we often don’t realize that we are using negative reinforcement when we shouldn’t. Using negative reinforcement to stop problem behavior can cause problem behavior to increase. Giving a child a piece of candy to make him stop crying would be considered negative reinforcement if you find yourself doing this a lot more to make the crying stop. Even though it makes the child stop crying at that moment, it also teaches the child that crying results in something favorable. Therefore they will be more likely to keep crying often, and I am sure that is not the desired result 😉 In a situation like this, it is best problem behavior is never rewarded.

By understanding how negative reinforcement works, you can learn to use it, so it helps you instead of having it work against you.

Written by a member of the Clinical Team at Bierman Autism Centers.

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