Reinforcement is vital for the success of any ABA program. Reinforcement is anything that strengthens behavior (causes it to occur more often). In order to teach children with autism to engage in appropriate behaviors, those behaviors must be reinforced.
In ABA, we make a distinction between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is essentially a reward, and is a relatively easy concept to understand. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is a widely misunderstood term. Many people confuse the term negative reinforcement with punishment. But negative reinforcement is not punishment. It involves the removal of something aversive, and as a result, behavior is strengthened. Punishment, on the other hand, is designed to stop behavior.
Positive reinforcement is the process of giving something to the child which will strengthen the child’s behavior. Negative reinforcement is the process of taking away something, but it also strengthens behavior. Here are some examples:
Positive reinforcement: Ana finishes her math homework and is allowed to play outside. As a result, the next day she gets her homework done right away because she is looking forward to going outside. This is positive reinforcement because 1) a privilege is being given to Ana and 2) the result is that Ana continues to complete her math homework. Math homework was reinforced by going outside to play.
Negative reinforcement: Ana is asked to complete her math homework. Ana refuses and throws her book across the room. Her dad picks up her book and says, “Ok. You don’t have to do it right now.” As a result, in the future, Ana will throw her book again because she knows if she does, she will not have to do her homework. This is negative reinforcement because 1) math homework is being removed and 2) Ana continues to throw her books.
Negative reinforcement: Sara cleans her room immediately upon entering the house because she does not want to hear her mom’s nagging. Avoiding the nagging is what reinforces Sara’s keeping her room cleaned.
Positive reinforcement: I study really hard for a test, and I get an A. I study really hard again for the next test in the hopes that I will get an A. Therefore, the excellent grade reinforced my studying.
Negative reinforcement: When a person takes Tylenol, a headache goes away. Because taking Tylenol resulted in the headache being removed, the person will take Tylenol again when they have a headache. Taking Tylenol is negatively reinforced by the removal of the headache.
Negative reinforcement: When the light turns green, the car in front of Mike does not go. So Mike honks the horn. In the future, this driver will pay more attention so that he doesn’t get honked at again.
Let’s personalize this. When you do something in order to earn something, that’s positive reinforcement. When you do something in order to avoid or terminate something, that’s negative reinforcement.
Problem behaviors are learned through reinforcement as well. For example, a task that a child does not want to do is removed when the child engages in challenging behavior: a child with autism starts screaming and parents and teachers back off because they do not want to hear the child scream. Not only is the child being negatively reinforced for screaming, but a parent or teacher’s behavior of “giving in” is negatively reinforced by the termination of the child’s scream. So as you can see, it works both ways! And of course, many problem behaviors persist because they have been positively reinforced, such as a parent trying to quiet a screaming child by giving him candy.
Positive and negative reinforcement are both means by which we learn certain behaviors. But when teaching skills to children with autism, positive reinforcement is the more common and desired approach. It is so common, that most of the time positive reinforcement is simply referred to as reinforcement. So when a practitioner uses the term reinforcement, they are usually referring to positive reinforcement, where children are given rewards for skill acquisition and positive behavior.
There you have it! Now you can say that you know the difference between positive and negative reinforcement!