Is ABA all about Punishment?


This is a tough piece to write, as it’s a bit of a delicate subject to approach, but I thought I may as well get stuck in. 

There is a common misconception about ABA, that it heavily relies on punishment. This is not true.

Two consequences are reinforcement or punishment. Now, punishment is a word that has many negative connotations, but it shouldn’t. Punishment is a consequence that decreases the future likelihood of a behaviour. Punishment as the field of ABA defines it is not as sinister as the general perception of punishment may be. Most views on punishment are probably misguided, uninformed, and/or outdated. Punishment has helped us thrive as a species,and played a big part in all our lives. 


The misconception is probably because oDoctor_review_brain_imagesf early research in to punishment in the field of
ABA, when punishment was a lot more common. Times when children would still get the cane at school, or you’d get a ‘clip round the ear’ if you did something wrong. But science evolves, ABA has moved a long way since then, just like people’s beliefs have. Science is always advancing, finding more effective ways to get better results; so is ABA. Whilst I was studying, my supervisor (Gina
Tirri, BCBA) spoke of how doctors aren’t treating all illnesses the way they were treated over 60 years ago, and that they use the most up to date treatments available to them, as do behaviour analysts.


Punishment occurs daily for everyone. A punisher is ANYTHING that occurs after a behaviour that reduces the future likelihood of the behaviour;

  • If you eat food that’s too hot and it burns your mouth, and you don’t do the same thing straight after, then the behaviour of eating piping hot food has been punished.
  • If you hit the snooze button too many times and miss your train, and in the future you don’t hit the snooze button, the behaviour of hitting the snooze button has been punished.
  • If a learner is rude to a teacher, they may get a detention, if the learner is less likely to be rude to the teacher again, then the detention was a punisher.


Parents would likely reprimand a child if they misbehave, and so would teachers for that matter, to the end that they want them to ‘behave’ more acceptably, learn more effectively, and be kept safe, so they are well equipped for life in the world. So why isn’t it acceptable to shape children with autism’s behaviour? We should have high expectations for our learners.


51pm2vhyXSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The first time I used a punishment procedure was with a young learner during a toilet training protocol (I’ll do another post down the line on the toilet training procedure by Azrin and Foxx). Basically, the child receives positive reinforcement for ‘good toileting practices’, and positive practice (a type of overcorrection – a punishment procedure where you get the learner to do the desired behaviour several times) when there is an accident. I remember feeling sceptical initially. Naturally, I asked questions, and read in to the research. Using reinforcement and punishment was such an effective way to toilet train, and being toilet trained is such a valuable life skill. If faced with the option of a couple of negative experiences or being toilet trained, what would you choose? Sitting around in wet/soiled pants is not dignified, so I know what I’d rather.



There are 2 types of punishment, positive (the addition of something – verbal reprimand) or negative (the removal of something – response cost). I have been trained to use reinforcement over punishment if possible, but sometimes, punishment may be necessary to decrease challenging/inappropriate behaviour. These could be strategies such as;

  • response cost (removal of something good, e.g. confiscating a learner’s iPad for a short period, or losing playtime)
  • time out [which is commonly misused] (is the withdrawal of the opportunity to earn reinforcement e.g. sitting outside of the ball pit, away from the fun)
  • verbal reprimands
  • over correction (doing the correct behaviour several times)

There are of course more punishment procedures.


It’s important to remember that something is only a punisher if the target behaviour decreases, so you shouldn’t be using the same consequence over and over with no change, as it’s actually ineffective. If a child becomes upset when you deliver a consequence, but it doesn’t decrease the target behaviour, then it’s not working as a punisher.



If using punishment, we should always be reinforcing a desired alternative behaviour. For example, if there was a punishment procedure used for a learner hitting other children during playtime, then we should also be reinforcing playing appropriately with peers. This way we can say things such as ‘play with ……’ rather than ‘stop ….’; give the learner something to do rather than something to don’t.


One last thing to consider is the delivery of punishment. I’ve seen teachers send children to the headmaster, and the head will give a verbal reprimand, which it turns out the learner loves, thought it was hilarious, so it’s likely the problem behaviour was actually reinforced! Remember, it’s not about how you mean the consequence to be taken, it’s about the effect on the future likelihood of the behaviour, how it’s received by the learner.


I hope this has clarified a subject that is sometimes tiptoed around, and hopefully you will convince others to not jump to conclusions, because in reality, behaviour analysts will only use punishment procedures after careful thought and planning, and always for the benefit of reducing an undesirable behaviour.

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