How to Reinforce Positive Behaviour in Children and Adults with Challenging Behaviour Part 1

How to Reinforce Positive Behaviour in Children and Adults with Challenging Behaviour

This is the first blog in our series on how to deal with challenging behaviour. Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) has become a well-known system of supporting individuals, particularly those with diagnoses of learning disabilities, autism, or dementia. This system was developed from Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), which uses behavioural principles to increase or decrease behaviours. The principles are: reinforcement, extinction and punishment. However, these principles are often confused. For example, in an episode of the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon refers to the prospect of shocking Penny as negative reinforcement, when in fact; this is actually an example of positive punishment. Simply put, reinforcement refers to increasing a behaviour, while punishment refers to decreasing a behaviour. The adding of something is positive, while the removal of something is negative.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is giving something enjoyable to someone, which then increases the behaviour. For example, giving stickers, sweets or praise to children when they get a maths question correct or use the toilet for the first time.

Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is removing something undesirable to increase behaviour. For example, taking a break or cleaning the house.

Positive punishment

Positive punishment is introducing something undesirable to decrease a behaviour. This includes shouting at someone to stop them from what they are doing or placing something bitter tasting on your nails to discourage you from biting them. Receiving points on your license for breaking road violations is also an example of positive punishment.

Negative punishment

Negative punishment in removing something desirable to decrease a behaviour. For example, giving someone a time-out, taking a phone or other preferred item from someone when they have broken the rules. Receiving a fine is another example of negative punishment.

The important thing to note with both concepts is to monitor how this is affecting the behaviour. For example, if receiving a fine is not altering your behaviour, that this is not sufficiently punitive as your behaviour has not decreased. Similarly, if being praised at work is not improving performance, it could be that this is not enjoyable or that it is not sufficiently reinforcing. In these cases, it might be that something more effective should be introduced, for example in the case of reinforcing work performance, a monetary reward, rather than praise alone.


Extinction is the process where a behaviour, which was previously reinforced, no longer receives this response. For example, if a child was previously given a break each time she shouted whilst writing her homework, she would no longer be given a break when she shouts in this context. Similarly, no longer giving a friend notes from class would be an example of extinguishing the behaviour of asking for notes.

It is important to note that we will notice an increase in the behaviour before the behaviour decreases. Think of the screaming child in the shop who is no longer receiving the lollipop. She will scream and scream and possibly even throw herself on the floor to try and ‘up the ante’. Or, in the above example, your friend may start asking you again and again for those notes, before they finally realize that this behaviour will no longer serve its purpose.

The next article of this series will focus on differential reinforcement strategies. You can read the second post of this series by clicking here.

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