Negative Reinforcement in ABA

Learn how negative reinforcement, if used correctly, can greatly benefit your child with autism.

Ruben Kesherim
June 22, 2023

Negative Reinforcement in ABA

What is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is a behavior strategy that teachers can use in classrooms and parents can use at home to guide their children's behavior. It involves removing something that parents or teachers deem unpleasant in response to a particular stimulus.

What is Negative Reinforcement?

Despite the word “negative” being attached to this form of reinforcement of good behavior, there is nothing negative or adverse about this type of behavior modification. If anything, it encourages and reinforces good behavior if it is used properly and consistently.

The basis of this type of behavior modification originates as early as the 1930s when the learning concept of operant conditioning was created.

Operant conditioning actually involves both positive and negative reinforcement. However, it focuses on the use of reinforcement to encourage the desired behaviors in children.

When used to modify the behavior of children with autism, negative reinforcement can be an effective tool to eliminate problem behaviors like screaming, tantrums, throwing and violence.

It can also be used to teach children with autism how to function at a higher level and become more independent.

It proves to be effective, in part, because it does not utilize the use of physical or corporal punishment.

It also rewards good behaviors with the diminishing of negative reinforcement if or when good behaviors are demonstrated. Children with autism learn to repeat good behaviors to eliminate negative reinforcement and receive more praise and reward.

Reinforcement & Punishment: Similarities and Differences

Both reinforcement and punishment can be effective tools to guide the behavior of children with autism.

They can provide a point of reference for children to understand what kind of behavior is expected of them and what kind of behavior will not be tolerated either at home, at school or in public.

Negative reinforcement, however, focuses more on encouraging good behavior.

It essentially gives the child a choice about how to act and what kinds of ramifications are in store if he or she fails to engage in the desired behaviors.

For example, a child with autism may be to told to pick up his or her toys after a play session.

If he or she fails to pick up the toys, the toys will be taken away and put up for a few days until the child agrees to pick them up the next time he or she plays with them.

Punishment, alternatively, discourages undesired behaviors through deliberate means of correction.

For example, a child who kicks or hits another child at school may be taken out of the classroom and placed in another room to sit alone with an aide or other teacher until the tantrum subsides.

Likewise, the child may have his or her toy taken away for breaking it. These punishments target the undesired behavior and let the child know these actions will not be tolerated and should not be repeated. They focus less on reinforcing positive behaviors and more on punishing bad ones.

What is Positive Punishment?

Psychologist B.F. Skinner coined the term “positive punishment” in the 1930s. It refers to punishment that, despite its name, is not necessarily positive but yet adds to an undesired behavior to discourage this same behavior from occurring in the future.

It involves two concepts: Aversive stimulus and undesired behavior. The aversive stimulus is what is added to the undesired behavior to ensure it does not occur again.

An example of an aversive stimulus could be getting a speeding ticket.

The undesired behavior, of course, is speeding. The police officer uses positive punishment by issuing a speeding ticket to the driver to discourage the driver from speeding again.

Another example of positive punishment can be scolding a dog for jumping up on a table after it has been told not to. The undesired behavior is jumping on the table. The aversive stimulus is the dog being scolded.

Positive punishment indirectly enforces good behavior if it is used consistently and reasonably.

A parent or teacher using positive punishment cannot allow some instances of undesired behavior to go unpunished.

The child will believe it is okay to act in that manner and become confused or hostile if or when the same behavior is punished the next time.

With consistency, positive punishment can minimize or eliminate undesired behaviors.

It can be an effective measure to use in conjunction with negative reinforcement when guiding the behavior of children with autism.

Negative Reinforcement & Educational Games

Negative reinforcement can be an essential component of playing educational games in the classroom or at home. It can reinforce lessons that children must remember for testing or simply for behaving successfully out in everyday life.

It can modify behaviors that prevent them from grasping essential concepts and encourages them to remember information they need to know to pass grade levels or replicate the same skills once they finish school.

For example, negative reinforcement can be effectively used to play a game that focuses on teaching children how to multiply.

If the goal of the game is to win a prize by answering the most correct multiplication questions, it encourages children playing it to remember how to multiply correctly and avoid getting answers wrong.

Children who continuously answer questions wrong fail to win the prizes given out in the game. They must watch their peers win the awards because these students remembered their multiplication lessons.

The negative reinforcement of not winning the game encourages them to study harder and remember their multiplication lessons better. They may win the game the next time it is played in the classroom or at home.

In this aspect, negative reinforcement can actually be fun while fostering the desired behaviors. Because children have fun while playing the educational game, they are more apt to work harder and master and repeat the desired behaviors.

They learn what they need to know to do well in school or master skills needed in everyday life without associating this learning with anything negative, despite the word “negative” being attached to this type of behavior modification.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

The following are some examples of positive reinforcement:

Drying Wet Hands

Drying wet hands utilizes negative reinforcement by teaching children with autism that they can get rid of water by rubbing their hands with a towel after they wash their hands. If they do not want their hands to be wet, they can use the towel to dry them.

Blasting the Car Horn

Blasting the horn reinforces the action of getting cars to move at a stoplight. If cars ahead of a driver fail to move after the light turns green, the driver knows blasting the horn will prompt the drivers ahead of him to go. It eliminates the annoyance of getting stuck behind cars at a green stoplight.

Car Windscreen Wipers

Negative reinforcement in this scenario occurs when it begins to rain. To remove the rain from the windscreen, the driver of the car turns on his or her wipers. The wipers get rid of the rain and allow the driver to see while driving. After the rain stops, the driver turns off the wipers but knows to turn them back on if or when it begins raining again.


Screaming can be used as negative reinforcement for children who want to get their way with parents or teachers. A child may scream at the sight of vegetables on his or her food tray. The child will continue to scream until the parent or teacher removes them. The child knows next time he or she can scream to get the vegetables taken away again.

Is Negative Reinforcement Good for Kids?

Negative reinforcement can be good for children who must be taught how to behave properly and utilize skills beyond the classroom effectively.

Despite the word “negative” being attached to this type of behavior modification, it actually does not involve anything necessarily negative in teaching children vital skills to use at home, in the classroom or out in public.

Negative reinforcement also does not utilize any kind of physical or corporal punishment that might cause new negative behaviors to arise.

If anything, it encourages positive behaviors because children learn how to master skills like multiplying correctly or putting toys away to get a sticker on his or her classroom behavior chart.

This type of behavior modification works best when it is administered consistently and in practical situations.

If a child with autism does not help clean up an arts and craft table after a therapy session, for example, he or she may receive criticism or expressed disappointment from his or her therapist.

To avoid being scolded or told that he or she has disappointed the therapist next time, the child may learn to pick up his or her arts and crafts supplies and put them away after the next session.

He or she also masters the skill of cleaning up after himself or herself, which can encourage more independence at home or out in public.



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