ABA Basics, Part 2: Negative Reinforcement

In our last blog installment, we explored positive reinforcement, which is when something is given or added as a consequence in order to increase a response. Today we’re going to take a look at negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement has the same effect that positive reinforcement does – it increases a certain behavior (reinforcement, whether positive or negative, always increases a behavior!). However, it is achieved by taking away something undesired, instead of giving or adding something that is desired.

With negative reinforcement, a particular behavior is strengthened by the consequence of stopping or avoiding of a negative condition. Here are a few examples of negative reinforcement:

Driving in heavy traffic is a negative condition for most of us. You leave home earlier than usual one morning, and don’t run into heavy traffic. You leave home early again the next morning, and again you avoid heavy traffic. Your behavior of leaving home earlier is strengthened by the consequence of the avoidance of heavy traffic. (In essence, heavy traffic has been removed as a result of you leaving early.)

Your son Tony really dislikes doing the dishes (which is one of his daily chores). You set up a system with Tony that allows him to escape doing the dishes one day if he does his homework for 3 days in a row without any reminders from you. Tony’s behavior of completing his homework is more likely to occur due to the consequence of avoiding his least favorite chore – dishes.

Be careful that you don’t confuse negative reinforcement with punishment – remember, with reinforcement we want to increase a behavior! Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, because it has the word “negative” in it, but punishment is defined as a consequence of behavior that weakens the behavior. For example, taking away a child’s favorite toy because she was screaming would be a punishment procedure – you are trying to reduce his or her screaming behavior. Punishment always reduces the likelihood of a behavior, and reinforcement always increases it. Got it?

Negative reinforcement is just another way that ABA therapists (and parents!) can modify a child’s behavior. In order to increase a child’s appropriate behavior, we may set up a contingency that removes a negative condition when that behavior occurs. It can be a very effective way to increase appropriate behaviors, and in some cases, avoiding what you really hate may be even more reinforcing than gaining something you really like! Some issues that can occur with negative reinforcement are negative emotional reactions, or the child only exhibiting the minimum amount of behavior that still allows for removal of a negative/aversive stimulus. This can be trained for by gradually increasing the level of demand placed on the person in order to achieve the removal of an aversive.

What are some ways in which you could use negative reinforcement with your child? Are there some situations that your child finds negative/aversive that you could remove if they consistently display an appropriate behavior?

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