Reinforcement vs. Punishment: Defined

I’d like to clear up some issues I have surrounding terms we hear daily as parents: reinforcement and punishment.  We think we know what these mean, and we’re pretty much right.  In a way.  I’ve alluded to the correct meanings here and there, in various posts on our group page on Facebook.

Now I’d like to just lay it all out there.  We all know I’m a behavior analyst.  I study behavior.  It’s my job to work to understand it as best I can, figure out the functions (the why’s), and either try to implement things to increase a behavior (if we want to see more of it) or decrease it (if we want to see less of it).  (There’s certainly other parts to the job of a behavior analyst, this is just a tiny piece of it).

When I first started my training as a behavior analyst, I thought I had a good handle on the definitions of reinforcement and punishment.  I was a school psychologist, after all.  I thought: reinforcement is something you do after an appropriate behavior so that the person will do it again.  Punishment is bad.  Shouldn’t be done.  It only teaches a child to fear you.

Well.  This is a bit inaccurate.  Reinforcement and punishment have more intricate definitions.

Reinforcement is something that increases the future occurrence of a behavior.  That sounds pretty much like we thought.  However, just because you are giving a child a cookie every time he (finally) does the dishes does not mean that behavior is being reinforced.  If his rate of doing dishes does not increase, and you still find yourself in arguments over him doing them, that cookie is not a reinforcer.  It is not increasing the future occurrence of the behavior.  Sometimes, it takes awhile to discover what might actually be reinforcing for your child, especially when you’re trying to get her behave a certain way more often.  Things like praise, or treats, or stickers may, in fact, not be reinforcers.  And occasionally, you may find that something like excessive praise, or your presence, or the phrases you’re using, are actually making your child mad and perhaps decreasing the behavior.  This would mean that what you are doing is actually a punishment.

Punishment is something that decreases the future occurrence of a behavior.  The word in itself is not good, or bad, it’s just a word.  What you do to try and decrease a behavior (your own behavior!) may be inappropriate.  For example, spanking or hitting your child, would be inappropriate.  It may decrease the future occurrence of whatever behavior you’re targeting, it may be very effective, but it infringes on the rights of the child, and is just not appropriate to do.  But there are other things that happen every day that also decrease behavior.  Things as simple as a child running full speed down the hallway and slipping and hitting her head.  She now doesn’t run as fast, or at all, down that hallway, because that behavior was punished.

I don’t tell you this to confuse you, I explain it to make you more aware.  It’s important to understand behavior as much as we can, because only then are we able to understand ourselves, our children, our own needs and theirs.  When you are concerned about a particular behavior, is it your intention to decrease it?  Are you doing things to try and get that particular behavior to go away?  If yes, then you are punishing it.

And this is ok, most of the time.  As long as what you are doing is not infringing on the rights of the child.  As long as it’s not harming the child, or causing the child extreme distress, it’s ok.  Because really, a punishment could mean something as simple as you removing an object from a small child’s hand when he was repeatedly hitting his brother with it.  By removing the object, and consistently removing the object each time so that the behavior decreases over time, you are punishing that behavior.

But punishment for a behavior we do not want to see is not the only way to go, and often it’s not even the best way to go.  Necessary, yes, sometimes: you don’t want to leave that object in your child’s hand when it’s being used as a weapon.

Reinforcing behavior we do want to see, and teaching new skills for situations that normally are cause for concerning behavior, are often the more effective way to go.  We always want to give our energy to the things we want to see more of.  If your child uses that object in an appropriate way, and does not hit his brother, notice that!  Put your energy into it and make it worthwhile for him to continue what he’s doing!  Teach and encourage him that when his brother does something he doesn’t like, or gets on his nerves, to get up and walk away.  Keep encouraging that and the day he does it, notice it and give your energy to it!!

Of course, reinforcement and punishment are simply terms.  But they carry such weight in the parenting world, and can often be so confusing when not truly understood.  Then made more confusing when some behavior analyst comes in and tries to give practical advice for becoming a more gentle parent. 😉

Understanding these terms, though, is such a simple but crucial step towards seeing behavior for what it truly is: communication.  Your child is not his behavior, he is your child, and he’s communicating in the ways he knows.  How you respond can determine what will happen in the future.

**There are different kinds of reinforcement and punishment, as well: negative and positive.  We often have misconceptions of what these mean as well, and I’ll address that in a separate post.

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2 thoughts on “Reinforcement vs. Punishment: Defined

  1. It is very interesting reading this, with my little one I’m constantly in the search for new ways to redirect him from naughty things and be creative but sometimes he is really pushing it and that’s when I need to remind myself about the difference between the punishment and guidance.

    Like

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