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The Power of Punishment and Reinforcement

Those of us who have received a speeding ticket immediately understand what

punishment is. Other forms of punishment may include scoring a low grade in a test, a

parent's reprimand or a spouse who gives his significant other the cold shoulder.

Punishment happens when "a response is followed immediately by a stimulus and

decreases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions" (Cooper,

Heron and Heward, 2017, p. 14).

Not every undesirable event is a punishment. Remember that a punishment is only a

punishment when the behavior decreases in the future. Therefore, if a child gets a

scolding from a parent when he pulls his sister's hair but continues the hair pulling

behavior, the scolding does not decrease his behavior and is not a punishment for that

child. Also, it is possible for scolding to act as a reinforcement. A child who laughs or

gains peer attention from scolding will not decrease his challenging behavior. In this

case, the scolding is more of a reinforcement for the behavior than a punishment

Although punishment is considered an effective procedure by many people when they

see an immediate behavior reduction following punishment, it has many notable side

effects which should be considered.

Did you know that punishment causes response suppression? I remember how as

students, we would remain quiet during our teacher's lesson. The teacher berated us if

we gave the wrong answers in class. As a result, the whole class would be so silent you

could hear a pin drop - our responses were suppressed in class due to the presence of

the punishing agent.

More importantly, punishment alone does not lead to the teaching of any alternative or

productive behavior. It does not address the cause of the challenging behavior in the first place.

I remember how my math teacher would reprimand me for making a mistake but not offer a

solution as to what I could do to avoid making the mistake the next time.

Punishment necessitates the presence of the punishing agent to be effective. When the

particular teacher who acts as the punishing agent is absent, the undesirable behavior may

occur. Everyone remembers how out of control the class can get that when the regular teacher is out on sick leave and a substitute takes over.

As outlined in the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts, (The code, BACB, 2014), reinforcement should always be considered and recommended rather than punishment.

There are many other side effects of punishment including evoking emotional responses,

escape or avoidance and aggression. Sometimes, punishment is modelled and perpetuated. The individual using punishment could become conditioned as punishers. Remember how as

students, we avoided the teacher who is likely to punish, reprimand or discipline us? On the

other hand, we gravitated toward the teacher who we felt safe with? Similarly, in some

households, children seek out one parent more than the other? It may be the case that the

preferred parent would be the one associated more with reinforcement than the less preferred parent.

The preferred parent may be the one associated with reinforcement. For example, he may be associated with fun and enjoyable times or be viewed as the giver of good things. In laypersons terms, a reinforcer is known as a reward. A reinforcer is "a stimulus change that increases the future frequency of behavior that immediately precedes it" (Cooper, Heron and Heward, 2017, p. 14). Although we tend to view rewards and reinforcers as desirable agents of change, reinforcers have a downside to them. Reinforcers could create unwanted effects. Interfering behaviors could be possibly evoked by the reinforcer. For example, a child who talks incessantly about what he will do with the money he will earn is exhibiting the interfering behavior of talking about the reward instead of completing his work.

In order for parents to use reinforcement successfully, there are some things to take note.

First, true reinforcement increases behavior. A response becomes more frequent in the future if a reinforcer or an increase in a reinforcer has followed it almost immediately. A parent who praises a child immediately after he has exhibited a desired behavior, such as sharing his toys with his sibling, may see an increase in the child's sharing behavior. The parent may see the child sharing toys with his sibling for a longer period of time, sharing more of his toys with his sibling, taking less time to decide if he wanted to share or increasing sharing instances throughout the day.

Another point to note is that reinforcement has to do with what the child desires at that

moment. Reinforcement depends on motivation of the individual. This means rewards have to be individualized. Not all girls prefer barbie dolls like not all children are motivated by candy. Additionally, a girl who likes barbie dolls may not want to play with the dolls at that moment. This same girl may be motivated by a nice, cold drink after playing out in the hot sun for some time. In other words, reinforcement depends on a moment to moment motivation. Offering barbie dolls to a hot and thirsty girl will not address her motivation in the moment.

Punishment and reinforcement are powerful agents of change. Parents must be equipped with the necessary knowledge to help children learn and teach them effectively using such agents of change.


Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical

compliance code for behavior analysts. Retrieved from


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2017). Applied behavior analysis. Hoboken,

NJ: Pearson.

Written by:

Melody Goh (BCBA)

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