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The collective gasp of all the people in the room is a familiar sound every time I mention the word “punishment”. I can thank some poor ethical choices from 50 years ago, and the confusion between the word punishment in regular language versus what it means in the context of Behaviour Analytic literature. This article will cover what reinforcement and punishment are in terms of behaviour, and hopefully you will have a better understanding of how we use these effective techniques, in a safe and ethical way.
Let’s start with reinforcement. Reinforcement is the addition or removal of a stimulus, that increases the future frequency of a behaviour. Any time behaviour is increasing (or maintaining) you are reinforcing it. You can reinforce your partner doing the dishes or them sitting on the couch, your child’s tantrums or their use of functional communication. There is no good or bad in reinforcement, it only refers to the behaviour increasing.
This is the same for punishment. Punishment is the addition or removal of a stimulus, that decreases future frequency of behaviour. Once again, there is no good or bad, and punishers are not necessarily things the average person would find aversive or see as harmful. Let’s look at some examples.
|Antecedent (before)||Behaviour||Consequence||Future Frequency|
|A parent says “please do your homework”||Child completes homework||Parent praises the child||Behaviour increases, more homework is completed (reinforcement)|
|A parent says “please do your homework”||Child completes homework||Parent praises the child||Behaviour decreases, less homework is completed
We may think we’re doing one thing…but actually children see it as another!
In this example the same sequences of events occur, and we see different effects on the child’s behaviour. It is these effects on behaviour that determine what is punishment or reinforcement. We see this happen in our daily lives all the time, we think that we’re helping, but behaviour isn’t changing or it’s getting worse. When we break it down something that we are doing in earnest, is actually punishment (reducing behaviour).
In conclusion, reinforcement and punishment are not about good and bad, they are scientific terms that help us understand behaviour. Once we understand a behaviour then we can change the environment, or up-skill people around us, to help a child better succeed and have a happier time in their home, school or community.
Please call Rachel or I on 9274 7062 for more information about your child’s program or about any of our services.
ABACAS Program Manager