Accessible ABA Inc
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we discussed the ABCs of ABA which include Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence. The consequence in ABA is something that immediately follows a behavior and makes that behavior more likely to occur in the future. This can also be thought of as reinforcement.
Reinforcement can be either positive or negative. This doesnt mean good or bad. What it means is that something is either added (positive) or removed (negative). With positive reinforcement a behavior is strengthened by providing a reinforcer (a toy, activity, attention, etc.). With negative reinforcement a behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome. This is different from punishment, which adds a negative outcome in an attempt to reduce behavior.
Lets look at what this means, and how you can use positive and negative reinforcement with your child with autism.
When talking about consequences for behavior in children, parents often jump to punishment, or rather what they think of as punishment. The word consequence brings to mind time out, grounding, taking away toys or privileges, and other parenting strategies that have been popular since they were kids.
In ABA we look at 4 different types of consequence. This is based on whether something (an object, activity, attention, etc.) is added or removed, and whether this causes the behavior to increase or decrease.
From this matrix, you can see that reinforcement causes a behavior to increase while punishment causes a behavior to decrease. As a rule, ABA focuses first on reinforcement, and then only uses punishment if reinforcement alone is not effective.
One of the big drawbacks to punishment is the risk of inadvertently reinforcing the behavior you are trying to reduce. This can happen when the parent doesnt understand the function (reason behind) the behavior (this is explained in detail in our ebookABA Fundamentals for Parents, also available fromAmazonin Kindle and paperback).
For example, 4 year old Jill throws a toy at Mom when she is asked to clean up her toys. Mom puts Jill in the time out chair for 4 minutes (1 minute for every year of age). Jill repeatedly gets up from the chair causing Mom to bring her back to finish her time out. In the end, Mom sits in the chair and holds Jill in her lap until her time out is finished.
In this example, Jills mom didnt do the work to determine the function of the behavior. She used the punishment she believed would be effective. But, if Jill threw the toy because she wanted to get Moms attention, then Jills mom actually reinforced this behavior. Every time Jills mom directed her back to the chair, and then when she held her on her lap, Jill got the attention she was seeking. ReadWhy Time Out Might Be Making Your Childs Behavior Worsefor more on the problems with time out.
Reinforcement is the opposite of punishment. It makes a behavior more likely to happen in the future. Okay, you might be a little confused here. If you want to stop your child from doing something (like throwing toys), then you have to use punishment, right? You dont want the behavior to happen more often!
Its reasonable to make this assumption. But when youre trying to change a behavior you can look at it from two perspectives:
Focus on the behavior you want to see more of by using positive or negative reinforcement. Then, if at all possible, ignore the behavior youre trying to stop.
Positive reinforcement happens when something is added, and the result is an increase in the behavior. This can be an object such as a toy, or an activity like watching a favorite TV show. It can also be in the form of social praise such as, great job! although often children with autism dont find social praise as reinforcing as other children might.
Its important to note that this type of reinforcement can be either intentional or inadvertent.
Lets look at an example of unintentional positive reinforcement. Three-year-old Ben is out shopping with his dad at the grocery store. They made it through almost the whole shopping trip without any serious problems, but as they stand in line waiting to check out Ben grabs a candy bar from the shelf. Dad takes it away and tells him hes not getting candy today. Then Dad watches in horror as Ben starts to wind up for a tantrum. He is getting agitated and has started to cry. Dad has seen this many times before and he knows the whole store will stop to watch when he really gets going. To avoid this, Dad shows Ben the candy and tells him he can have the candy after they pay for it.
In this case, the tantrum is more likely to happen in the future because Ben received the candy.
On the other hand, the intentional application positive reinforcement, however, can have significant benefits. If instead Bens dad had anticipated a tantrum at the checkout he could have implemented positive reinforcement. Before Ben became agitated Dad tells Ben that he can have a piece of candy if he waits patiently while they pay for the groceries. If Ben succeeds and doesnt have a tantrum, he gets the candy. If he has a tantrum then Dad puts the candy back and they try again another day.
Lets look at some more examples of positive reinforcement.
Jack is 6-years-old and his parents have decided its time he learn to sit with the family at dinnertime. Normally he grabs a bite of food passing by the table, but they feel hes old enough to stay in a chair while they all eat together. To do this, his parents have decided to use positive reinforcement. They will let him watch 3 minutes of his favorite YouTube video after sitting for 3 minutes at the table.
Five-year-old Clara is afraid of dogs. Their neighbor has just brought home a golden retriever puppy and Clara runs crying whenever the puppy comes near her. Her parents want to teach her that the puppy is not going to hurt her, so they have decided to use positive reinforcement. They begin by having Clara watch the puppy out the window. When she does this, she gets an M&M. Over time they will gradually bring the puppy closer to Clara, but they might need to choose a stronger reinforcer to help Clara overcome her fear.
Keep in mind that if the reinforcer you choose isnt something your child finds reinforcing you might actually be using positive punishment. For example, Mom is trying to teach 5-year-old Julie to put on her shoes. To begin, Mom has decided that every time Julie picks up her shoes Mom will clap excitedly and tell Julie, good job! Mom doesnt understand why Julie now picks up her shoes less often than she did in the beginning.
The problem in the scenario above is that not only did Julie not find the loud clapping and exclamation of good job! reinforcing, she the sudden noise scared her, causing her to be afraid to pick up her shoes.
For more on choosing the best reinforcer, read our postCharacteristics of an Effective Reinforcer in ABA.
Negative reinforcement also makes a behavior more likely to happen in the future, but it does this by removing something. Like positive reinforcement, this can be applied unintentionally, causing undesired behaviors to be reinforced.
For example, 7-year-old Beth is afraid of the loud hand dryers found in public bathrooms. When she hears one she begins rocking, humming and puts her hands over her ears. If the sound continues she begins to scream as well. It has gotten so bad that her parents have stopped taking her into public restrooms all together.
This inadvertently reinforces Beths agitated behavior.
Lets say that instead Beths parents decide to intentionally use negative reinforcement. They bring noise canceling headphones that Beth can use to drown out the sound of the hand dryer. When the hand dryer starts they show Beth how to put on the headphones to remove the sound that she finds so distasteful.
Negative reinforcement works extremely well for replacing an undesired behavior (Beths agitation) with a more desirable behavior (using headphones to drown out the sound of the dryer). Lets look at some more examples.
Nine-year-old Liam often gets frustrated when doing his homework, especially math. When he gets stuck on a problem he will rip his homework page to shreds. Because of this, the problems he does solve cant be graded. His parents have decided to use negative reinforcement to teach Liam to ask for help. When Liam asks for help one of his parents will sit with him and explain the math problem, making it easier for him to understand.
Andrea is 7-years-old and getting her to clean her room feels like a constant battle. When Mom asks her to clean up her room she ends up taking more toys out instead, making the room an even bigger mess. Mom realizes that cleaning the whole room might be too big a task for Andrea to do all at once, so she has decided to use negative reinforcement to make the project easier. Instead of telling her, clean up your room, like she normally does, Mom tells her, pick up all the books you can find and put them on the shelf. By doing this she has made the task easier for Andrea, and she is able to complete it without argument.
Reinforcement is one of the most important concepts in ABA. You will find them all on ourReinforcementpage but be sure to read these posts:
Effective Reinforcement Using ABA: learn the basics of reinforcement. In this post we explain what reinforcement is, and give you advice to help you choose a valuable reinforcer for your child.
Characteristics of an Effective Reinforcer in ABA: choose the right reinforcer to help your child.
Reinforcer or Preference Assessment for Children with Autism: discover what your child truly finds reinforcing!
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Amelia Dalphonse is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). She achieved her Masters in ABA from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Her passion is helping children with autism and she has worked in this field since 2009. Together with her sister Dianna Kelly, she has founded the nonprofit organization Accessible ABA, Inc. whose mission is to make ABA strategies and techniques available to all children who need them.
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