ABA Therapy Basics: How to Use Positive Reinforcement

Behavior analysts use remarkably straightforward concepts when designing treatment plans for their clients.  While their implementation can be complex, many of these principles are simple enough to be taught in an introductory psychology course at a high school level.  Understanding these concepts can go a long way in helping you understand how your behavior analyst is working with your child, and can help shape your role in your child’s behavioral intervention program.

The principles of reinforcement operate on nearly all complex organisms. Whether it’s your yellow Labrador retriever, your goldfish, your neighbors, your child, or even yourself – all behavior is influenced by the presence of reinforcement.  We at times might like to think we are more complex creatures but at least in this case, we’re all in the same boat.

Both reinforcements and punishments are consequences.  They are things that occur after our behavior.  They are the delicious meal after we cook it, the pain after falling, seeing flowers bloom after gardening, and the lost keys after carelessly putting them in the wrong place.  We may predict many of these consequences beforehand, but they take place after we do something.

How to Build Up Positive Reinforcement

Behavior analysts are interested in how consequences affect behavior, as consequences determine how often the behavior will happen in the future.  Reinforcement increases or maintains our behavior.  The taste of a good cookie makes it more likely that I’m going to eat more cookies in the future.  Getting paid keeps me showing up for work.  Being petted makes it more likely that my dog will sit next to me in the future.  It works on unwanted behaviors as well; the upset stomach that comes from overeating those delicious cookies makes it less likely that I’ll eat so many next time.

Behavior analysts use reinforcement to increase the positive and functional behaviors of their clients. They will rearrange things so that your child is getting more reinforcement for appropriate behaviors.  This may mean praising your child more consistently for good behavior, having your child earn stars or other tokens, or giving your child a break after working on a task for a period of time.

Additionally, they will work with you to ensure your child’s inappropriate behavior (tantrums, whining, and the like) are not getting reinforced.  This is called “extinction.”  This often looks like ignoring specific behavior or not allowing access to the items they are attempting to get via whining.  This can be quite difficult, especially since may see a brief increase in the intensity of the child’s unwanted behavior (an “extinction burst”) before the behavior finally extinguishes.  With help from your consultant, stick to the plan and it will get better.

How Do “Punishments” Work in ABA Therapy?

The punishing consequences ABA practitioners use are usually the same kind of natural consequences you already use around the house ( loss of tablet time, time away from attention, etc.), they are just applied more consistently and carefully.  These consequences will be carefully chosen and only used in instances where reinforcement has not had the desired effect on your child’s behavior.  Please ask questions, be informed; your ABA practitioner wants you to be comfortable with any punishing consequence used.

 “Punishments” Can Sometimes Reinforce Behaviors We Are Trying to Change

If you reprimand your child for arguing with her sister… but your child continues to argue with her sister in the future, was your reprimand really a punishment? Why does she continue to argue?

There are a lot of factors to consider before ruling out punishment in this scenario, or any situation where reinforcement or punishment do not have the intended effect on a child’s behavior.  The most common mistake is confusing things that we think are punishing for things that are reinforcing.  For example, giving your child attention in any form might be reinforcing their behavior, even if the attention is in the form of a reprimand.

Your behavior analyst should have this in mind when choosing reinforcers for your child and will probably ask lots of questions about what your child prefers.

What reinforces you?

It is an interesting mental exercise to look at your behavior and figure out why you do something. What reinforcement are you looking for?

Especially consider behaviors that might not be good for you. Consider both factors in why you enjoy a good Netflix or a tasty, greasy burger. How does reinforcement come in to play there?

Give it a try. Run your ideas by your consultant to see if you’re on the right track. With time, you’ll be quite the amateur behavior analyst and that much better equipped to understand your child’s behavior.