Home » Pro » Reflections on Applied Behavior Analysis » You Don’t Have to Resort to “Punishment” to Get your Toddler to Behave: What to do Instead (From a Science-based, ABA-perspective)

with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

You Don’t Have to Resort to “Punishment” to Get your Toddler to Behave: What to do Instead (From a Science-based, ABA-perspective)

Young beautiful mother scolds her rebellious and moody three year old boy

As parents, we have the best of intentions. We love our children unconditionally. We want them to behave, do what they are told (immediately), and not do what they are not supposed to do. We want our children to act appropriately when we go out in public, when they are at school, and in the home.

All of these expectations are perfectly reasonable. Parents play a big role in influencing their children’s behavior now, while their children are still young, as well as in teaching behaviors that will hopefully help them to function successfully and appropriately in adulthood.

We may feel like we should immediately react to the “bad” behaviors that our children do in order to stop the behavior. We may also feel like we need to lecture our children on what they should be doing.

These are justified feelings, but, sometimes our methods for trying to reach our ultimate goal of having well-behaved, successful children don’t always result in the outcomes we desire.

In applied behavior analysis (ABA), a science based on the principles of behavior and learning, the term punishment is defined as anything that immediately follows a behavior that decreases the occurrence of that behavior in the future. So, for example, reprimanding your toddler for throwing her toys by stating “Don’t throw toys!” with an elevated tone of voice may seem like a reasonable intervention. However, there are many things to consider when deciding on an appropriate way to handle a child’s behavior. If, in this scenario, your toddler’s behavior stops in the moment, but increases in frequency in the future, you might actually be “reinforcing” her throwing behaviors. This might occur if your reprimand is actually a form of attention that is reinforcing to your child.

One of the main strategies used when teaching new behaviors (or maintaining current behaviors) recommended in ABA is positive reinforcement. This is adding something immediately after a behavior that increases the occurence of that behavior in the future. In the scenario described above, you could give your toddler attention by playing with her (even for a brief amount of time) or talking to her when she is not engaging in throwing behavior. If the throwing behavior was maintained by the attention received from your reprimand and you no longer give the reprimand but instead give her the attention for displaying appropriate behaviors (such as playing with the toys in the correct way), you can increase your child’s “good” behaviors while decreasing her “bad” behaviors.

This idea is similar to the concept of “catching your child being good” that you might hear in various parenting skills models.

This same idea can be applied to so many different situations that you are likely to encounter with your kids. However, it is important to understand what is currently reinforcing the “bad” behavior and also to provide lots of positive reinforcement for “good” behaviors. This is not to say that a child has to “earn” your attention, but it does raise the point that the timing that you provide your attention can impact your child’s behaviors.

Noncontingent reinforcement is also an ABA concept which refers to providing reinforcement at various times noncontingently (meaning it doesn’t matter what behavior was occurring). This is another way to increase compliance from your child. The more reinforcement (such as praise, attention, play, favorite snacks, etc.) she receives from you (and less punishment), the more likely she will do what you want her to do. (There are certain considerations to keep in mind related to noncontingent reinforcement, as well, but that topic can be discussed in another post.)

THE TAKE-AWAY MESSAGE: Consider how you usually react immediately following your toddler’s misbehavior. Consider whether you could replace a punishment tactic (such as time-out, a verbal reprimand, or another aversive technique) with a positive reinforcement procedure. To do this, identify the behavior you want to see more of (especially ones that will be in contrast to the misbehavior, such as playing with toys instead of throwing them) and then provide praise, attention, conversation, and other forms of positive reinforcement for that behavior.

[image credit:© madhourse via Fotalia]

You Don’t Have to Resort to “Punishment” to Get your Toddler to Behave: What to do Instead (From a Science-based, ABA-perspective)

APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2015). You Don’t Have to Resort to “Punishment” to Get your Toddler to Behave: What to do Instead (From a Science-based, ABA-perspective). Psych Central. Retrieved on August 17, 2019, from