Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D                                                              

[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on May 27, 2021 and in the Stoughton Journal Sun, Randolph Herald, Canton Journal, and Holbrook Sun on June 23, 2021.]
Reinforcement is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the action of strengthening or encouraging something.” Many people think reinforcement means providing rewards – especially for good behavior. While this is true, reinforcement is more than just rewarding good behavior. Those of us who use applied behavior analysis (ABA) in our work with students who have autism and other special needs have a more complex and comprehensive definition of the term.

Within the context of ABA, a reinforcer is a consequence that follows a behavior and strengthens that behavior or increases the likelihood that it will occur again in the future. 

Often, the learning environment provides the reinforcers for typically developing students. They usually respond to reinforcers, or consequences, such as praise or extra attention for a job well done. But for students with developmental disabilities, we may not be able to rely on these and may need to look to other forms of more tangible reinforcement such as a fun activity or a special treat.

We use reinforcement to help strengthen new skills we are teaching. After a student has learned a new skill, we also might provide a reinforcer when he or she demonstrates generalization of that skill, which means the ability to perform the skill in a setting other than the learning environment. For example, he or she might learn how to ask for a specific item in a school setting and then use that skill at home or in the community.

Reinforcement also helps students maintain (or continue to use) skills and encourages them to behave in an appropriate manner. Over time, as the student has more practice with new skills and behaviors, reinforcement will be needed less often.

We may also use other supports to help set expectations for the student. For example, a visual schedule or tokens can be used in conjunction with reinforcement to help the student understand when reinforcers may be delivered. We may also need to structure what access to reinforcers looks like. Instead of open-ended access to an iPad, for example, we may give access for a few minutes. We might use a timer to measure the length of time the student has access to the iPad and systematically reduce that amount of time once the skill is mastered. While this may seem rigid, a consistent, predictable approach can promote faster learning for some, and may eliminate power struggles over access to preferred items or reinforcers.      

ABA terminology refers to both positive and negative reinforcement. Some might think that positive means good and negative means bad, but this is not the case. The term positive is used to refer to something that is added, and negative is used to refer to something that is removed. Some examples of positive reinforcement may include stickers, toys, praise, money, electronics, or screen time. Some examples of negative reinforcement may include the removal of work when a student asks for a break, or stopping an annoying noise like an alarm clock by hitting the snooze button, or a seatbelt chime by putting on a seatbelt. 

By thinking of reinforcement as a process of adding or removing things from the learning situation, we can increase behaviors we want to see more. For guidance specific to your child, please contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, for consultation.

Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit