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The Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Trying to figure out different ways to approach behavior can be overwhelming and frustrating. One thing to always remember is to try and focus on reinforcing the behavior you want to see moreBlog-Reinforcement-Main-Landscape
than punishing the behavior you are wanting to decrease. Using positive and negative reinforcement can both help achieve the same goal of increasing the behavior you would like to see more of.

The difference between positive and negative reinforcement is simple. The use of positive reinforcement is adding something (typically something that is liked) to the environment after a behavior occurs that will increase the future instance of that behavior. The use of negative reinforcement is taking away something (typically something that is not liked) from the environment after a behavior occurs that will increase future instances of that behavior.

 Examples of positive reinforcement include:

  • Giving a praise after a specific appropriate behavior occurs and then that behavior continues to increase.
  • Earning a special treat after a specific appropriate behavior occurs and then that behavior continues to increase.
  • Getting a 5 minute 1:1 time with parent after a specific appropriate behavior occurs and then that behavior continues to increase.

Examples of negative reinforcement include:

  • Removing a chore from the chore list from the schedule after a specific appropriate behavior occurs and then that behavior continues to increase.
  • Taking away a specific school related task after appropriate behavior occurs and then that behavior continues to increase.

The key to making sure either type of reinforcement is working is to measure and track the behavior and see if that behavior is increasing over time!

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using reinforcement and punishment

Using Reinforcement and Punishment at Home

How do I get my child to listen to me at home? This is a common question I hear from parents.  One solution is by using the basic principles of reinforcement and punishment. These principles will allow parents to gain control over their child’s behavior, and they will begin to see a decrease in negative behaviors and an increase in positive behaviors at home.

Tips for Using Reinforcement at Home
using reinforcement and punishment

Reinforcement is a consequence following a behavior that increases the probability that the behavior will increase in the future.

When you want to see a desired behavior increase or continue to occur, you should use reinforcement. It is important to first identify what is reinforcing to your child. Some children are very reinforced by adult attention, whereas other children are motivated by being alone playing electronics. It is also important to have variety of reinforcers that are used. If you are reinforcing your child with the same item over and over again, they are likely to get bored with that item.

Of course you don’t want to give your child access to the iPad every time they engage in a desired behavior, so you need to mix and vary the type of reinforcement used. Reinforcement can range from simple praise for taking out the garbage to buying highly desired toy for getting all A’s on the latest report card. Decide which behaviors you currently are trying to increase or maintain, and then deliver the reinforcement accordingly. For example, if there is a particularly challenging behavior that you are trying to increase (ex: potty training), you should pick an item that is very motivating to your child, and only give them access to that item when they engage in the desired behavior (i.e. using the potty). The item should be unavailable at all other times.

Examples of reinforcers that can be used at home include: praise and attention, treats, access to preferred electronics, being allowed to stay up later than usual, buying a desired toy, etc.

Tips for using Punishment at Home

Punishment is a consequence following a behavior that decreases the probability that a particular behavior will occur in the future.

When a behavior occurs that you want to eliminate or decrease, you should use punishment. Punishment is a necessary strategy to use when decreasing undesirable behaviors. Punishment doesn’t need to be something bad or something that your child fears. It is simply a consequence to a specific behavior.

As with reinforcement, you need to determine what is going to be an effective punishment for your child. If you child isn’t really motivated by electronics, then taking away electronics privileges probably won’t change their behavior. Conversely, if your child dislikes doing chores, then giving extra chores should decrease the behavior.

Examples of punishments that can be used at home include: time out, loss of privileges or preferred items, going to bed early, extra chores, etc.

Important Considerations for Using Reinforcement and Punishment

Always be mindful of how much you are using punishment, and to make sure you are also using reinforcement in addition to punishment. When children do not receive any reinforcement, they may start misbehaving more frequently in order to gain adult attention. It can be easy to focus on the negative behaviors and forget to reinforce the positive behaviors that you see.

Just as you need to make sure you are not solely punishing behaviors, it is also equally as bad to make sure you are not solely reinforcing behaviors and avoiding punishment altogether. If your child is engaging in specific behaviors that you want to stop, punishment needs to be used. It is important to remember that you are not punishing your child, rather you are punishing a specific behavior or set of behaviors.

As your child gets older, the items used for reinforcement and punishment should also change. Both the reinforcers and punishers used should always be age appropriate. Finally, when delivering either reinforcement or punishment, make sure you are delivering the consequence as soon as possible after the behavior occurred, so that your child knows exactly which behavior is being reinforced or punished.

For more specific definitions and examples of both reinforcement and punishment, you can reference my last blog: How to properly use reinforcement and punishment.






reinforcement and punishment

How to Properly Use Reinforcement and Punishment

Reinforcement and punishment are common terms that most people have heard of and use on a daily basis, whether they realize it or not. Although the concepts seem easy to understand and implement, it can be easy to confuse the basic principles and/or implement them incorrectly.  In order to understand the difference between reinforcement and punishment, it is important to understand the definitions of both terms.

Reinforcement

reinforcement and punishment

Reinforcement is a consequence following a behavior that increases the probability that the behavior will increase in the future. The consequence can be either positive or negative.

Positive Reinforcement is something added to the consequence that will increase that particular behavior in the future.

Example: Your child cleans his room the first time you ask, so you give him  a cookie as a reward. In the future he is more likely to clean his room the first time you ask.

Negative Reinforcement is something removed from the consequence that will increase that particular behavior in the future.

Example: Students do well on their math test so the teacher doesn’t give them homework over the weekend.

Negative reinforcement is often interpreted incorrectly and becomes confused with punishment. But from the above definition and example, you can see that negative reinforcement is used to increase desired behaviors, and is not punishing in any way.

Punishment

Punishment is a consequence following a behavior that decreases the probability that a particular behavior will occur in the future. As with reinforcement, the consequences can be positive or negative.

Positive Punishment:  Something added to the consequence that will decrease a certain behavior in the future.

Example: Your child talks back to you, so you make them do extra chores.

Negative Punishment: When a consequence includes the removal of an item or privilege that will decrease the behavior in the future.

Example: Your child fails a test, so you take away their cell phone for a week.

 

Tips for using reinforcement 

  • Always be sure to only reward behaviors that you would like to strengthen and see again in the future. It is easy to inadvertently reinforce negative behaviors without realizing it (Ex: You child is crying in the grocery store because you won’t buy them candy. You eventually give in and buy them candy, so the next time they want candy in the grocery store they are going to cry). In this example the behavior of crying was positively reinforced, so that behavior will continue in the future.
  • Vary the type of reinforcement used to avoid overindulgence of a particular item or activity (i.e., if you always reward your child with candy for good behavior, they are likely to get tired of the candy and may stop engaging in the desired behavior).
  • Before choosing a reinforcer, figure out what your child is currently motivated by and use that item. Some children can be motivated by the same item for longer periods of time, and others may change their motivation more frequently.
  • Be consistent with the delivery of reinforcement in order to maintain the desired behavior.

 Tips for using punishment

  • Be sure to only punish behavior that you want to decrease. In addition to inadvertently reinforcing negative behavior, it is also possible to accidentally punish appropriate behaviors.
  • When punishing a behavior you want to decrease, always make sure you continue to reinforce appropriate behaviors.
  • If you find yourself using punishment and the behavior is not decreasing, re-evaluate the consequence and try another consequence. Also, what may be punishing to your child this week may not be punishing next week. Just as you always need to re-evaluate what reinforcers to use, you also need to re-evaluate what punishing consequences to use based on your child’s current motivation.
  • Be consistent with the delivery of consequences in order to decrease the undesired behavior.

Click here for more great tips to implement positive and negative reinforcement during play dates.

“I Don’t Want to Talk About It!”- 5 Ways To Encourage Emotional Expression

If your child is resistant to communicating when upset, he may try to deny, hide, or avoid talking about his feelings.

It may be because he doesn’t feel safe expressing himself, or he could be afraid that talking about it will make him even more angry or scared than he already is. It is important for children to learn that as hard as it can be to talk about negative emotions, we need to release those feelings or they can resurface as negative behaviors and cause even worse problems. When I teach this to children, they usually give it a shot and see for themselves that they can feel much better afterwards!

5 Ways To Support Talking About Feelings:

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  • Listen: Focus on your child, show empathy, and remove distractions.
  • Validate: Accept their feelings, even if they seem irrational.
  • Normalize: Help them understand that all emotions are normal and healthy.
  • Problem Solve: Encourage your child to come up with ways to cope.
  • Reinforce: Always praise your child for opening up.

Don’t be worried if your child still doesn’t love talking about his feelings, as this is only one way of expressing them. Some children respond better to drawing pictures, role playing with toys, or playing games to communicate their feelings. I am constantly amazed by how creative children can be when it comes to finding their favorite ways. Whatever method they prefer, encourage them to use it so they can get rid of pent-up feelings and get back to having fun!

Your child’s emotional well-being is important not only so they feel their best, but also because it supports their social and intellectual development. The positive effects are contagious to all aspects of your child’s life!

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