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Positive and Negative Reinforcement in ABA Therapy

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You’re at the mall trying to buy a pair of shoes for yourself when your child flies into a rage and has a temper tantrum in the middle of the mall; to regain control of the situation, you offer to buy them candy once you’ve purchased your shoes. 

If this sounds familiar, you’re certainly not alone. For parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this type of scenario can happen regularly. 

Maladaptive behavior such as temper tantrums, throwing objects, or loud outbursts are often ways children on the spectrum can express their feelings, especially if they’re non-verbal. 

However, there are ways to change and improve this type of aggressive behavior, and it doesn’t involve bribery. 

At Heartlinks, we’re advocates of positive and negative reinforcement because they’re the foundation of our ABA therapy.  

With locations across the United States, we have trained therapists who can help your family and child learn how to improve and eliminate maladaptive behavior by using reinforcement in ABA therapy. 

What is Reinforcement in ABA Therapy?

Reinforcement is the encouragement and strengthening of good behavior. 

It is also the foundation of applied behavior analysis or ABA therapy

American psychologist and grandfather of ABA therapy B.F. Skinner developed a theory that behavior can be taught by controlling the consequences of actions. 

The principal way to teach this is by using reinforcement to either increase or decrease the probability of a specific behavior occurring the next time a given set of circumstances arise.  

According to Skinner, the key to understanding behaviors is to realize they occur within a context. He broke that context down into three parts.

1. Antecedent

The antecedent occurs seconds before the behavior of interest. The antecedent can also be known as the trigger or the source of what provokes the behavior. The antecedents that most frequently trigger negative behavior include the following:

  • Restricted attention
  • Denied access to a desired activity or object
  • Extreme environmental stimuli, including lights, temperature, or noise
  • Demands
  • Unstructured time
  • Transitions

2. Behavior

These are the actions performed or exhibited as a result of the antecedent. It is anything a person does concerning the information preceding it. 

3. Consequence

The consequence occurs immediately following the behavior, typically within 30 seconds. 

The most common consequences that encourage or maintain behavior include:

  • Positive attention, praise, or condemnation
  • Granted access to a preferred item or activity
  • Sensory stimulation

Why Children with Autism Need Positive Reinforcement

All types of reinforcement, positive or negative, help children with autism spectrum disorder learn various new and different skills. In turn, these skills will help them lead fulfilling and rewarding lives. These improvements can be seen in the following areas:

A child getting a high five
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Verbal communication
  • Academic performance
  • Social skills and interactions
  • Functional life skills

To get optimal results from positive reinforcement, you want to consistently reward them with a reinforcer of their choice whenever they exhibit acceptable behavior.

What is equally important to remember is that positive reinforcement is also helpful for decreasing and avoiding maladaptive behaviors such as excessive stimming or aggression. 

Types of Reinforcement

The two most well-known types of reinforcement are positive and negative. 

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves adding an aspect to increase a child’s response. This might include praising a child when they get outstanding grades at school. This would motivate a child to continue to do well in school.

Negative Reinforcement

You are removing a factor from your child to increase a response. This might be withholding their Ipad until their bedroom is satisfactorily cleaned up. The idea behind eliminating something your child wants is to encourage the behavior that you desire.

It’s important to note that the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ do not imply good vs. bad types of reinforcement. Instead, B.F. Skinner defined these terms in mathematical form.

As such, ‘positive’ would be equivalent to a plus sign, meaning something is applied or added to a situation. Whereas ‘negative’ would mean something is subtracted or removed from the situation. 

The Benefits of Positive Reinforcement

Perhaps the most significant benefit of positive reinforcement is your child’s improved behavior. 

Strategically using positive reinforcement will help your child understand the connection between acceptable behavior and the subsequent reward.

The Difference Between Bribery and Positive Reinforcement in ABA Therapy

Many parents that we initially encounter at Heartlinks confuse positive reinforcement with bribery.

The two concepts are similar in that a child with ASD is given access to something they treasure: candy, their favorite stuffed animal, their electronic device, or a toy. 

These concepts differ in two significant ways:

Mother and daughter sitting on the couch together happy


Many parents don’t realize that positive reinforcement is given after a desired action or behavior occurs. Positive reinforcement is modeled after the if-then system. Simply put, if your child remains quiet throughout your doctor’s appointment, they will receive their favorite cookie at the end. Your child will only be rewarded once the task or request is completed.

In contrast, bribery in this situation would be giving your child the cookie before they take an oath of silence during your doctor’s appointment.


Positive reinforcement is designed to increase the likelihood of the behavior reoccurring. In the example above, if the child with ASD is handed the cookie after they’ve remained quiet, they’ll probably remain silent during the next appointment.

On the other hand, bribery will not encourage the repetition of acceptable behavior. If the reward is handed out before your child demonstrates the correct behavior, the incentive to do so is lost.

ABA Therapy with Heartlinks

Within all the different types of therapies we offer, we regularly remind our parents and caregivers that their past approach with their children on the spectrum wasn’t wrong; it just needed improvement. That’s where Heartlinks can help.

Reinforcement in ABA therapy has given our ASD families incredibly positive results. Yet none of these results would have been possible without a group of people being consistent in their approach and working together! 

For more information on reinforcement in ABA therapy, contact Heartlinks today.

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