Contributed by Oksana Huk, ECLC Ho-Ho-Kus School Psychologist
The terms reinforcement and punishment are often used when discussing behavior management, but their definitions are often misunderstood.
Reinforcement is simply the attempt to increase a behavior; while punishment is the attempt to decrease a behavior. The term positive refers to giving something to someone, and the term negative refers to taking something away.
When managing difficult behaviors the best approach is to withhold the reinforcement for the undesirable behavior and provide reinforcement for an alternative behavior. This way, a person’s needs can still be met, but by using a socially-desirable behavior.
So let’s take an example from the classroom. Suppose a student is repeatedly calling out in class. We might learn that the reason the student is calling out in class is to gain attention, and every time they gain attention for calling out, they are being positively reinforced for calling out.
If we want to decrease the frequency of calling out, rather than giving something aversive to the student or taking something desirable away, we would no longer provide the desired attention when they call out. If they don’t receive the reinforcement for calling out, they will stop calling out.
Notice that nothing is taken away from the student for calling out, nor is anything aversive given to the student. The behavior is not punished; it is just not reinforced.
Reinforcement is used rather than punishment, because it is always easier to reinforce a new behavior rather than punishing current behaviors! Very important, we also have to teach an alternative behavior. So if the student wants attention, we will teach them to raise their hand and give attention every time they raise their hand and positively reinforce that new behavior. With proper reinforcement, the behavior will continue over time.
|Positive||Giving something desirable to increase the frequency of a behavior(e.g., increasing the frequency that someone will eat vegetables by giving them dessert after they eat them)||Giving something aversive to decrease the frequency of a behavior(e.g., decreasing speeding in the future by giving a speeding ticket)|
|Negative||Taking something aversive away to increase the frequency of a behavior(e.g., increasing the frequency that someone will wear that seatbelt by taking away an annoying sound when they click their belt)||Taking something desirable away to decrease the frequency of behavior.(e.g., decreasing fighting between siblings by taking away toys)|