ABA Tips for Parents Negative Reinforcement

Written by Alana George, BS Clinical Psychology, RBT Student Analyst

What is Negative Reinforcement?

Last month we discussed positive reinforcement.  We understand that the use of reinforcement is significant in increasing a target behavior. Negative reinforcement is a method in which something uncomfortable or otherwise unpleasant is taken away in response to a stimulus. Over time, the target behavior should increase with the expectation that the unpleasant thing will be taken away. The most common misconception of negative reinforcement is defining the term as a punishment.  Negative reinforcement is not a punishment because the removal of the given stimulus results in an increased frequency of the target behavior (Capella University, 2020). The behavior was then reinforced, not punished. I believe this misconception easily exists due to the connotations the word “negative” holds, but once the term is fully explained negative reinforcement is easily understood. 

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Social: Your child is working on developing positive play skills with peers. Sometimes crowded rooms can become overwhelming. During gym time, the volume in the room increases and your child appropriately requests to leave and take a break. Your child’s RBT directs your child to take a break. In this example, your child’s behavior of appropriately communicating needs is reinforced.

Tangible: Your child finds schoolwork highly aversive and completing homework is a challenging task to complete. The teacher has implemented a reward system for every 3 on time assignments your child is given a free one-time homework pass. Exempting them from the responsibility. In this example, the child’s behavior of task completion is reinforced.

Edible: Your child has a hard time eating new textured foods. You want them to try broccoli for the first time. You prompt the child to try three bites first, then the broccoli will be removed. The child complies and the broccoli is taken away. In this example, you are reinforcing the child’s behavior of eating new foods.

Activities: Your child enjoys listening to music but can be sensitive to volume at times. While listening to music the volume is increased. Your child requests the music to be turned off by stating “All done”. The music is turned off. In this example, your child’s behavior of functional communication is reinforced.

Physical: Your child has an itchy tag in their shirt. They appropriately ask you for your help to remove the tag. You then help them, and the tag is removed. The itchiness is removed. In this example, you are reinforcing the child’s behavior of requesting help.

Why Negative Reinforcement is Important

Implementing negative reinforcement is equally as important as positive reinforcement, both are important to your child’s success by creating a positive consequence for a preferred behavior. Reinforcement must occur for behaviors to continue to happen. Without reinforcement, the behavior will be unlearned and no longer occur (Capella University, 2020).  It is important to only reinforce positive behaviors. Negative reinforcement can mistakenly be used to reinforce maladaptive behaviors, back to the example of your child having a difficult time eating new textured foods and you want them to try broccoli for the first time. When you present the broccoli the child then tantrums and you remove the food. In this example, the removal of broccoli negatively reinforced the behavior of tantrums. This example shows how negative reinforcement can teach incorrect behavior. With implementing negative reinforcement it is important to understand that what is being removed or avoided after the behavior is called an aversive stimulus. (An aversive stimulus often is seen as something unpleasant, painful, or annoying that a person will try to get away from or avoid.) The essential difference, therefore, is that in positive reinforcement, a response produces a stimulus (a positive reinforcer), whereas, in negative reinforcement, a response removes or prevents the occurrence of a stimulus (an aversive stimulus). In both cases, the behavior is more likely to occur in the future (Miltenberger, 2015).


Miltenberger, R. G. (2015).

Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. [Capella].

Retrieved from https://capella.vitalsource.com/#/books/9781285227924/

Capella University, 2020

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