Positive reinforcement in ABA therapy helps clients understand the connection between a situation, their behavior, and how the situation responds to their behavior. It can start by simply offering a person a reward if they complete a task, with the idea of eventually helping them learn vital life skills to use when they are out of therapy.

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

In both general psychology and applied behavior analysis, positive reinforcement is a fundamental concept to replace bad behaviors with desirable ones and to strengthen the development of desirable behaviors. It works by adding a stimulus after a behavior, to make it more likely that the person will do the behavior again in the future.

The stimulus is usually rewarding or reinforcing in nature. Adding it immediately after the behavior, or drawing a distinct connection between the behavior and the stimulus, will strengthen the desirable response or behavior.

When dealing with positive reinforcement in psychology and autism therapy, “positive” does not mean something “good.” Instead, “positive” should be thought of in mathematical terms, like adding something. Positive reinforcement is ultimately the addition of something (good) as a result of the person engaging in desired behavior.

Positive reinforcement can be as simple as someone being thanked for holding a door open. The acknowledgement and affirmation of the gesture are positive reinforcement, in that they add to the likelihood that the person will hold the door open again in the future.

In education and therapy, positive reinforcement can be more deliberate, to help a person establish a causal relationship between the situation, the desired behavior, the reward, and the expectation of doing the desired behavior again in the future.

Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence

This causal relationship is known as the ABCs of ABA therapy. There are three main components to it:

  1. Antecedent: the cues leading up to the behavior
  2. Behavior: the specific actions that are performed because of the antecedent
  3. Consequence: the outcome of those actions

It is important to define that “consequence,” in this paradigm, does not have the negative connotations of how the word is normally used. Here, a consequence refers just to the response or the action that happens after a behavior.

In psychology, an example of the antecedent could be a student being given homework to do. At home, the student finishes the homework in a timely manner. The student is consequentially rewarded with additional playtime. The student being allowed to do something they enjoy is the reinforcement offered to (hopefully) encourage them to again do their homework in a timely manner when the antecedent next arises.

Connecting the ABCs

In ABA therapy, the ABCs need more work. A child who has a learning disability, or another disorder that prevents them from understanding the causal connections of the ABCs, will likely not have an opportunity for positive reinforcement to naturally occur. If they do not produce the desired behavior, they might not understand what they need to do to achieve the desired consequence; they might act out, throw a tantrum, or be otherwise disruptive because their learning disability or other disorder makes it difficult to intuitively understand the connection between the ABCs.

Applied behavior analysts sometimes change the antecedent, modifying the environment as necessary. More often than not, however, they tend to work with environments that are fixed and relevant to the child’s life: the dining room at home, the classroom, or a public place, like a restaurant.

Reinforcement

One of the many jobs of an applied behavior analyst is to understand how and when to introduce reinforcements to their clients, in a way that is systematic enough to build the connection between the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence. With positive reinforcement, this means knowing how and when to add the consequence as opposed to a negative reinforcer, where a consequence would be removed.

What makes a good reinforcer? Children respond best to something they crave as a reward. They have to deeply want the item or privilege to be willing to go through the proper behavioral channels in order to earn it (and not just take a shortcut).

The best way to use positive reinforcement as a part of applied behavior analysis therapy is to help the child connect the reward with important life skills that do not come easily to them. Being consistent with the connections between antecedent-behavior-reward is the best way to implement positive changes in a child’s behavior and weed out undesirable and harmful behavior.

Positive & Negative Reinforcement

Both positive and negative reinforcement are effective aspects of applied behavior analysis. Negative reinforcement is typically associated with punishment, so it is not widely practiced in modern ABA. The true definition of negative reinforcement, however, is taking away something unpleasant or uncomfortable.

Negative reinforcement is a natural part of learning. For example, someone not wearing adequate protection in the rain will get wet, so they wear a raincoat next time (which removes the discomfort of being wet). Negative reinforcement has its place in life lessons.

The key difference between positive and negative reinforcement is that positive reinforcement adds a positive reinforcer to encourage further repetitions of the desired behavior. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something negative in the environment in order to encourage further repetitions of the desired behavior.

Reward vs. Bribery

Positive reinforcement can be thought of as a reward system, where a child receives items or privileges that they find meaningful if they perform tasks as expected.

It is strongly differentiated from bribery, which takes place after the child has already started engaging in problematic behavior and is offered an item (like ice cream) to get them to stop the behavior. Bribery does not help the child understand the ABC connection, and it does nothing to dissuade them from engaging in the problematic behavior in the future. In fact, it might even teach them that engaging in the problematic behavior is a way to get their reward.

To distinguish positive reinforcement from bribery, the child must not get their desired item until after they have demonstrated the expected behavior from the situation.

The goal of positive reinforcement is that the rewards create enough encouragement that the child can provide the desired response on a regular, consistent basis, eventually without needing or even expecting the reward. In time, the child will understand the connection between the antecedent, their expected behavior, and the rewards inherent in the environment, such as getting what they want or getting through a difficult situation.

Patience & Persistence

One of the main keys of using positive reinforcement during ABA therapy is to be patient. A child will not understand the connection between the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence immediately, or even after the first five sessions.

Parents, therapists, and caregivers must be patient and persistent in showing the child that the desired behavior is the only way to get the reward, no matter how frustrating the process may be. Capitulating in the face of tantrums will unwittingly reward the tantrum behavior and undo the hard work of creating the ABC connection.

References

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Autism Speaks.

ABC’s of Behavior (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence). (July 2017). Psych Central.

The ABCs of Child Behavior. (September 2015). Psychology Today.

ABC: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. (August 2020). ThoughtCo.

Positive Reinforcement and Examples – Psychology. (December 2020). Parenting for Brain.

The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations. (Spring 2006). Behavior Analyst.

Using Positive Reinforcement to Improve Your Child’s Behavior. (September 2020). Verywell Family.

Understanding and Implementing Positive Reinforcement as an Intervention Strategy for Children With Disabilities. (January 2004). The American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

The One Parenting Trick Everybody Needs to Know. (March 2020). Today’s Parent.

Why Reinforcement Is the First Thing to Consider When Teaching a New Skill. (January 2017). The Autism Helper.