The field of ABA sometimes uses terminology that doesn’t necessarily fit with common language used by parents and professionals that aren’t so familiar with ABA. The concept of “punishment” is one example of when this sometimes becomes problematic. If an ABA professional is discussing punishment from an ABA perspective but has not clearly defined what they mean by punishment, the listener (parent, other professional, or whomever is the conversational partner) may get confused, get defensive, or just not buy into the message that the ABA professional is offering. Because language is complex and people make meaning out of language based upon their own knowledge and learning history, it is important to clarify what we mean when we, as ABA professionals, use various terms.
Punishment is a controversial topic. The best interest of the client should certainly be considered when providing ABA services. It is also important to consider providing the least restrictive interventions possible. However, punishment, as defined in the ABA literature, is an area that deserves some consideration. Many professionals support the use of reinforcement, especially positive reinforcement, as the go-to strategy for increasing and improving behaviors. However, punishment may come up, particularly in the context of ABA parent training.1
As mentioned in the article, “Considering the Application of ABA Concepts in ABA Parent Training,” it is important to define the concepts that are used and discussed in ABA services as well as in recommendations to parents and caregivers.
In ABA, punishment is defined as “a reduction in behavior due to a consequence made contingent on the performance of that behavior.”2 As with reinforcement, punishment can be divided into positive and negative forms of the concept.
Positive punishment is when a consequence is added after the occurrence of a behavior leading to a decrease in the behavior. Examples of positive punishment include loud noises, getting yelled at or scolded by a parent, etc.
Negative punishment is when a consequence is taken away after the occurrence of a behavior leading to a decrease in the behavior. Examples of negative punishment include taking away food, taking away money, or being removed from a social situation.
Examples of punishment strategies used in the field of ABA include overcorrection, time-out, response cost, visual screening, etc.3 These are various forms of positive punishment and negative punishment found in the ABA literature that are used to decrease behaviors that are considered maladaptive or problematic.
Parents often use punishment strategies in their parenting style. However, in the context of ABA parent training, it is important to explain what punishment means as well as how it applies to the identified client. It is also important to look at the literature and consider ethical and other guidelines in regard to recommendations about punishment.
1DiGennaro Reed, F.D., & Lovett, B. J. (2008). Views on the Efficacy and Ethics of Punishment: Results from a National Survey. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 4(1). Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ861336.pdf.
2Azrin, N. H., & Holz, W. C. (1966). Punishment. In W. K. Honig (Ed.), Operant behavior: Areas of research and application. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
3Axelrod, S., & Apsche, J. (Eds.), (1983). The effects of punishment on human behavior. New York: Academic Press.