Using reinforcers as a punisher?

Categories: Interventions | Resources

hmm… caught your attention there hugh? You may be wondering why in the world you would use reinforcers as a punisher? Well since many of mostly highly potent reinforcers can function to increase a wide range of appropriate behaviors, why not also use them to decrease inappropriate behaviors.

The removal of a reinforcer can serve as a punisher. Think about some aversive situations in our lives. You get a speeding ticket – what’s the real punisher in this scenario? The removal of money, right? We are losing a highly powerful reinforcer. In the good ole’ ABA world this is known as negative punishment. It is the removal of something that is causing a decrease in behavior. Common using of negative punishment are getting grounded, take a toy away when kids are fighting, and losing tokens when engaging in inappropriate behaviors. Interventions utilizing negative punishment are relatively easy to implement because you can use what you already know functions as a reinforcer.

A few tips and tricks:

  • For negative punishment to most effective you want to remove the highly referred item immediately after the behavior occurs! For some of our kiddos with low receptive language – taking away something and telling them it was for an inappropriate behavior they did earlier in the day is not going to do anything! You want them to develop the relation – bad behavior = no reinforcer. Bam.
  • For the most bang for your buck – be consistent. This can be a painful process but in the long run will save you time. You want them to develop the relationship between the inappropriate behavior and the loss of the preferred item and this will happen more easily and quickly if you are consistent with removing the item.
  • Don’t get too lofty with your ambitions here – be reasonable and safe. Trying to take away a child’s favorite candy might be awesome way to lose a finger. Only remove an item that can be taken away easily without causing additional disruptive or inappropriate behaviors.
  • Time out is a commonly used form of negative punishment. However – for time out to work as a negative punishment – ‘time in’ must be reinforcing! If you are giving a child time out and they are missing out on school work that they do not like – well that’s not punishing at all! You may have actually just reinforced their inappropriate behavior by getting them out of work they don’t like!

How I have been using this lately:

  • With my token economy, we use negative punishment for a variety of inappropriate behaviors by taking away a star. When I am using my token economy for work completion I will take away a star for wrong answers, slow work output, or messy writing. When I use tokens for behavior, I take stars away for inappropriate behaviors.
  • Ipad to the rescue again. Since that small magical rectangle is pretty much the MOST powerful reinforcer we have – not surprisingly the removal of it functions as a pretty strong punisher. When I mentioned earlier the painful process of negative reinforcement can be – I was thinking of this intervention I am using now. Every time one of my students has the iPad I sit with him. He has this one nasty behavior I am trying to decrease – playing with his gum. I swear I have come home with gum in my hair because of this little guy. I bet you’re thinking – why not just get rid of the gum? Well chewing gum is a sensory strategy we use to decrease singing and scripting. Gum is super successful and almost completely eliminates this but then a new problem popped up. Don’t you just love that? Playing with his gum is really unhygienic and with the rotating door of flus and coughs we have had in my room – I think this is an important behavior to decease.

I know this method works with him because that’s how I got him to wear headphones on the iPad. He used to blare the sound so loud and as much as I’d like to let listen to whatever he wants – there are 9 other kids in the classroom trying to work. Every time he took out the headphones – I took away the iPad. Now he always wears headphones. So now for the gum behavior, every time he plays with his gum, I take away the iPad. Hopeful this will work quick 🙂


  1. The ipad is a huge reinforcer for my students too. I’m finding I’m going to it too often and too long for one of my students. This student used to resort to many destructive and aggressive behaviors in her classroom last year. These behaviors have been dramatically reduced which is great but I think I’m relying too heavily on the ipad for occupying her while I work with other students.

  2. That can get hard when we have big caseloads and it’s an easy solution. I try keeping data on how long particular student use the iPad and that makes me more aware of who is having it for too long. Hope this helps 🙂


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