I’m almost a bit scared to write this blog, simply because the word ‘punishment’ has sooooo many negative connotations attached to it!

What’s the first thing you think of when you read the word PUNISHMENT???

Prison? Courts? Smacking? Handcuffs? Time-out?? All nasty stuff right??

I want you to take your parent hat off for just a moment and stick your scientist/ABA hat on.

Remember the take home point =

……..it’s the consequences (the thing that happens immediately after a behaviour) that influence whether or not you will see your child engage in that behaviour again in the future.

And remember there are 3 main consequences:

  1. Reinforcement (increases future occurrences of behaviour)
  2. Extinction (decreases future occurrences of behaviour)
  3. Punishment (decreases future occurrences of behaviour)

Punishment = anything that immediately FOLLOWS the behaviour (i.e. another consequence) and DECREASES the chance of that behaviour occurring again.  Punishment has occurred when a response is followed immediately by a stimulus change that decreases the future frequency of similar responses (Cooper & Heron, 2007, Applied Behavior Analysis).

Urgh… more yuk words…..here’s a simplified definition: Punishment is part of learning – we need it!

If you engage in a certain behaviour, and this behaviour gets you something that you DON’T want, then you are less likely to engage in that same behaviour again to avoid the same outcome in the future.

In other words when an unfavourable outcome or event occurs after a behaviour, that particular response will be weakened.

We need punishment so that we can learn to avoid things, or not do things at all.

For example, as infants we might touch fire the first time we see it but it doesn’t take long to learn not to do it again! The vast majority of humans find pain aversive so we learn quickly to avoid things that cause us pain.

What about work? What if you decide to pull a sicky to have a day off and you quite enjoy yourself so you do it again the following week and then again and again. Soon enough your boss would ask to speak to you and you might get a verbal warning. If this doesn’t serve as a punisher and you continue to skive off work the likelihood is that sooner or later you will be fired. However, if you stop pulling sickys’ after the verbal warning, then this would be considered an effective punisher and you have just saved your job!

Something can only be labelled as a punisher if it made the behaviour decrease.

Let’s look at a kiddie example now.  If a teacher puts a learn into Time Out every time they ‘misbehave’ in class, and over time the misbehaviour keeps on happening then Time Out is not a punisher. Remember; if behaviour is increasing then it’s being reinforced, so in this example time out is actually serving as a reinforcer! Which I’m sure is contrary to the teachers intentions.

Many parents and professionals assume that Time Out will be punishing, but one can only describe something as a punisher once the target behaviour has been examined over time – has it increased (in which case it’s a reinforcer) or has it decreased (in which case it would be a punisher)??

Let’s be honest though, punishment has a bad reputation and many people think of it as a nasty and bad ‘thing’ that’s used to cause harm. This isn’t the case in the ABA world.

There are many kinds of punishment that can be categorised into 2 groups: Positive or Negative (just like reinforcement).

Put your maths hat on for a sec and take note; Positive means you added something, and negative means you removed something (just like reinforcement!).

Are you still with me or are you scrolling through facebook?!

Stick with me!

Positive punishment = adding something a person does NOT like after a specific behaviour (e.g. might be a verbal reprimand, telling a child to do lines or tidy a big mess etc). This is the type we want to avoid if possible.

Negative punishment = removing something a person DOES like after a specific behaviour (e.g. confiscating a mobile phone, removing a star off a star chart, taking away TV time etc). This is the type we might start using when other reinforcement strategies have been exhausted.

ABA professionals are ethically required to select punishment interventions with caution and to always have parent/client consent.

Some reminders…

  • Punishment decreases
  • punishment occurs AFTER the behaviour.
  • Punishment should be viewed as a last resort as a behaviour change strategy, when you’ve exhausted reinforcement strategies.
  • Punishment teaches the child NOT to do something but it doesn’t teach what TO DO.

As I’ve said in a previous blog, punishment is a learning tool, in the same way that reinforcement is. When implemented ethically and effectively, punishment can decrease behaviour very quickly.

To watch a video I did with BCBA Corey Robertson on principles of behaviour (amongst other things) click here:



Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 560-567). Columbus: Pearson