The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: Punishment

Punishment & Consequences......ahhhh.

So much can be said about these two concepts. Unfortunately much of what is said or written is incorrect, outdated, or just wrong.  In some circles (like school systems) punishment may be viewed as a dirty word. Educators, families, and parents believe they understand consequences and punishment, but they really don't. I think anyone who has regular contact with children should have a basic understanding of reinforcement and punishment, but especially if you work with a child with Autism. This is helpful and vital knowledge to have, and can change the way you interact with these children. So lets jump in!

First, here's a definition:

Punishment- 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).

Sound confusing?? Its really not.

Punishment is part of learning. Every behavior has a consequence to that behavior. Something good happens, something bad happens, or nothing happens. Punishment is a necessary learning tool so that we can learn to avoid things, or not do things at all. If we didn't learn from consequences it would impact our lives in a negative way. For example, if every time you skipped work your boss got very angry and yelled at you but you continued skipping work, sooner or later you will likely be fired. However if after the first time you get yelled at you stop skipping work, then you just learned something important to your well being. Basically, punishment is something intended to make a behavior decrease. We use reinforcement for behaviors we want to see go UP, and we use punishment for behaviors we want to see go DOWN. Its that simple.

Something is labeled a punisher only if it made the behavior go down in the future.  So if a teacher sends  a student to Time Out every day for acting up in class, and after a week the behavior has gone up then Time Out is not a punisher.
Punishment has gotten a very bad connotation and most people think of it as a negative thing intended to cause harm or to hurt a child. That's just not true. There are many kinds of punishment, that can be divided into 2 groups: Positive or Negative. These groups are easy to distinguish if you think of math. Positive means you added something, and negative means you took something away.

Here is a helpful chart (I just love visuals)-
Positive Reinforcement-
Add something to increase a behavior
Negative Reinforcement-
Take away something to increase a behavior
Positive Punishment-
Add something to decrease a behavior
Negative Punishment-
Take away something to decrease a behavior

So based on what most people think about the word "punishment", which one sounds worse- positive punishment or negative punishment?
Negative punishment sounds worse. This is why its important to understand what these concepts actually mean, because doing something "bad" is what most people think of when they hear the word "punishment".  In actuality, positive punishment is the one you want to avoid, which includes things like spankings, electric shock, restraint, or aversives. Professionals in the field of ABA are ethically required to select punishment interventions carefully, judiciously, and to have parent/client consent. Punishment techniques are often only added to a behavior plan after several other options have failed, and it will likely be a form of negative punishment (the child loses access to something), such as Response Cost.

Punishment is a learning tool, just as reinforcement is. When done correctly, punishment can bring about immediate change in behavior. Punishment is not "The Big Bad Wolf" as it gets portrayed in society. However, decades of research and empirical studies have clearly shown that it is always best to rely on reinforcement to bring about a change in behavior, rather than punishment. In other words, first try to find something to INCREASE when looking at behavior change, not just a behavior you want to stop.

 (For anyone interested, I strongly recommend you research the history of ABA, to see how punishment was originally used on children with Autism. Life Magazine article, 1965  This article is not an easy or pleasant read, but it is important to see how far ABA as a field has come. If you have encountered anti-ABA people it is usually because they incorrectly believe that ABA has not evolved from this 1965 article ).

So lets discuss some types of punishment, now that we know what punishment is.
  1.  Reprimands: Yes, this is considered punishment! Remember the definition of a punisher is something that causes the target behavior to decrease. So if your client keeps touching the materials at the table and you say a stern "Hands Down", which causes them to stop touching materials, then "Hands Down" was a form of punishment. Other examples include "No", "Stop that", "Get down", etc.
  2. Response Blocking: This is when the child goes to do something, like push a sibling, and you block them from completing the action. I use blocking all the time, which could be as simple as stepping in between my client and the child they are trying to hit. Blocking is a non- intrusive way to stop a child from successfully engaging in inappropriate behavior.
  3. Over Correction: This is one of my favorite types of punishment. That might sound odd that I have a favorite kind of punishment, but its because whenever I have implemented an over correction technique it works super fast. Basically, over correction is when you OVER react to an inappropriate behavior. For example, if the child throws their cup of milk from the table during dinner, you would have the child go through the entire clean-up process several times in a row. What I really like about over correction is it is very easy to teach to parents.
These are all effective forms of punishment that can be implemented easily by anyone, and can be a necessary component to a behavioral plan. Now I must mention, whenever you are implementing a punishment procedure it is imperative that you think of the behavior plan as a coin. On one side of the coin you have the punishment procedure. If you flip that coin, you must have a schedule of reinforcement so that child has a way to contact a reward. Otherwise you are setting the child up for a lose- lose situation, because they get nothing for good behavior and something for bad behavior. That "something" may prove more important than the "nothing" over time.  Continuing with the example above of the child who throws their cup of milk during dinner, if I was the therapist working with that child I would make sure that she got tons of attention and praise for being on task during dinner. On task could mean eating appropriately, interacting with siblings, passing bowls of food, using her napkin, etc. Then I would remove attention if she threw her milk, and go immediately into the over correction procedure.

So finally, lets address "The Ugly". If done incorrectly, or without adequate supervision by a qualified BCBA punishment can have negative side effects. Issues usually arise from the application of punishment, which is a clinical way of saying HOW the punishment is delivered to the child. Just like with reinforcement, if punishment is delivered too quickly, or too intensely you are likely to cause harm. Here are a few side effects of punishment that everyone should know:

  1. Aggression/Anger/Retaliation (Emotional Response)- This is the one I see the most. In response to a punishment procedure, the child starts to hit, bite, scratch, or pinch, in order to stop the therapist from completing the punishment technique. The child resists being restrained, they fall to the floor and scream when told to go to time out, or they attempt to bite me when I implement an over correction technique. Be prepared that this may happen, and have a crisis plan in place in case the child become aggressive.
  2. Escape/Damaged Relationship/Harm to Rapport Building Process- A large risk to punishment techniques is that they directly destroy the purpose of rapport building: to establish a nurturing, caring relationship with the child. The child may start to avoid you, to fear you, or to become upset/agitated when in your presence. This may take the form of escape, where the child runs from you or attempts to leave the therapy room. This could also look like avoidance, where the child just avoids being near you or around you. Obviously, having a situation where the child is afraid of you is counter productive. The first time you spank your child, you may not see an avoidance or escape response. Just be aware it could happen, and decide upfront if that's a risk you want to take.
  3. Behavioral Contrast- This is an ABA term, that basically means creating a situation where X doesn't occur here , but X occurs over there and may even occur more frequently. Here is a real life example: A therapist gets a child to stop kicking their feet at the work table by immediately removing reinforcement, combined with holding the child's feet still for 5 seconds. Very quickly, feet kicking goes down to 0 occurrences when the therapist is around. However, when the therapist is not around, the child not only kicks when sitting at a table, they kick at near constant rates and the parents don't know how to handle it. What the therapist has actually taught this child is "Don't do that around me". 
Please remember: punishment on its own does not teach anything. Yes, you may reduce or eliminate a behavior but you need to also teach what to do instead of the inappropriate behavior.

Otherwise the learner could just replace the behavior you didn't like with another behavior that you really wont like. An example of this that I see all the time in schools, is a child will begin to run down the hall and a teacher will say "Stop running!". Very quickly the child will stop running. BUT, they may begin to skip, hop, or be inappropriate in some other way. A better way to handle this is to say "Walk please", which tells the child what you want them to do instead of allowing them to decide what their replacement behavior should be.


  1. I looked up behavior contrast on google and this appeared. It was super helpful in helping me understanding the meaning for real world application. Sometimes textbooks can be hard for me to understand. Thanks for sharing this information. My name is Cory Nichols. I'm a first year master's student in SPED(and ABA) at Vanderbilt. Nice to meet you.

    1. Hi Cory,

      You are welcome, I'm glad the information was helpful for you!

  2. I love your blog, and i have learned so much by reading your posts. Thanks from a mother with a child with autism and future ABA Therapist,

    1. I appreciate your comment and thanks for visiting my blog!


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