Decreasing Problem Behavior

Decreasing Problem Behavior

When and How to use Punishment Appropriately
by Christa Dalton, BS BCaBA

Punishment is often overused, or used inappropriately without understanding the adverse side effects.   Today, I want to show when it is appropriate to use a punishment procedure and ways to implement it that can reduce these adverse side effects.

To use punishment effectively and appropriately we need to first understand what punishment is and isn’t. Punishment is any environmental event immediately following a behavior that decreases the future frequency of that behavior. Punishers include both adding an aversive item/event or removing a pleasurable item/event.


  • Every time Timmy bites his nails, he is given a coloring page to     complete and the frequency of his nail biting goes down.
  • When Kayla hits she is immediately placed in a time out chair for 1 minute and the frequency of hitting goes down.


  • Every time Joe yells he is reprimanded by his mom saying “No! Stop yelling” and the frequency of his yelling stays the same.
  • When Jane throws items she is asked to pick the item up and the frequency of her throwing goes up.

Notice that the frequency of Joe and Jane’s inappropriate behaviors stayed the same or went up. This means that the reprimand and being required to pick up items are not punishers for Joe and Jane. They may be aversive events, but they are not punishers. This demonstrates one of the most important things to consider when attempting to decrease problem behaviors. It is critical that we understand why a child is engaging in a particular behavior. Perhaps Jane would throw items when she was asked to sit down and do her homework, and the requirement to pick the item up postponed homework time. Thus picking up the item would actually function as a reinforcer. Once you understand why they are engaging in a problem behavior you can choose a punishment procedure that can actually be effective.

If you choose to implement a punishment procedure you’ll need to be aware of the possible side effects these procedures can have. These could include:

  • Escape and/or Avoidance: These are behaviors that either end an aversive event (escape) or postpone or prevent an aversive event from happening (avoidance). These behaviors can take many forms and can become more of a problem than the original problem behavior. Examples of these behaviors are; lying, cheating, hiding, truancy, etc.
  • Counter Aggression: This includes any aggressive behavior (i.e. throwing items, hitting, kicking, hostile comments, videos or comments posted on the internet, etc). These aggressive behaviors often generalize between different environments. A child could be punished in one environment (at school) and have aggressive behaviors in several or all environments (at home, on the bus, on the playground, etc).
  • Behavioral Contrast: This effect of punishment refers to when punishment is only being delivered in one environment, the behavior will decrease in the punished condition and increase in the unpunished conditioned. For example, before introducing any intervention Sally drew on the wall 5 times a day on average. Dad begins to punish this behavior and her drawing on the wall reduces to once or twice a day in Dad’s presence. Mom doesn’t punish the behavior and Sally draws on the wall 10 times a day in her presence. Now, Sally is drawing on the wall 11 or 12 times a days.

Despite these adverse side effects of punishment, punishment continues to be one of the most common ways a handling problem behavior. Why is this? The answer is simple. People only use punishment when someone is engaging in a behavior that is aversive to them. They want that person to stop engaging in that behavior, otherwise you wouldn’t be punishing it. Typically the immediate (though often not the long term) effect of punishment is they immediately stop engaging in the aversive behavior. This means that your delivery of punishment in reinforcing to your punishing behavior. The aversive behavior was removed. Let’s look at an example, paying attention to mom’s behavior.

Antecedent: Devin begins to hit his mom.
Mom’s behavior: Mom takes away Devin’s favorite toy.
Consequence: Devin immediately stops hitting.

The next time Devin starts hitting (or yelling, pinching, throwing things, etc) what is mom likely to do? She will probably take away Devin’s favorite toy. It “worked” before, even if it was only temporary. This means that we need to be careful before using a punishment program. We need to make sure that we have decided to use it because it is the best decision for the child we are working with, not because it’s reinforcing to us.

However, there are times when punishment is appropriate to use (when someone’s behavior is more dangerous to themselves or others than the possible side effects of punishment would be or when other positive procedures have been ruled out as ineffective, are some examples when punishment should be considered). When we decide that a punishment procedure is appropriate, there are ways to lessen the undesirable effects. These include combining punishment with other reinforcing procedures.

Any behavior that occurs more than once is being reinforced in some way (if it wasn’t reinforced there would be no reason to engage in the behavior a second time). This means that when you add a punishment program you need to recognize that you will be competing against a reinforcer. Any time you use a punishment procedure, it it critical that you combine it with other procedures that focus on changing the way your child can access that reinforcer, or reduces the motivation to access that reinforcer. Some of the procedures that can be used in combination with punishment are:

Extinction: withholding the reinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior. Remember how we talked about how critical it is to understand what is maintaining problem behavior? Jane get’s out of doing homework when she has to pick up thrown items. It’s possible to make the behavior of throwing items lose all value by using an extinction procedure. No matter how many items Jane throws, she cannot get up from the table until she has finished her homework. By combining this with a punishment procedure, it’s possible to make throwing items aversive to Jane. Now, when Jane throws an item, not only is she not allowed to get out of homework, but she is also given an extra problem to complete for every item she throws.

Differential Reinforcement: putting one behavior on extinction, while simultaneously reinforcing a different behavior. Let’s continue using the example of Jane, one way that we could use differential reinforcement would be to allow Jane a 2 minute break away from her homework every time she requests a break, but continue to require her to complete her homework even when she throws items. Thus, throwing items is under extinction while requests for a break are simultaneously being reinforced.

Non-contingent Reinforcement: presenting a known reinforcer on a consistent timed basis (every 5 minutes, or every hour, etc) regardless of the chid’s behavior. For an example, John’s screaming behavior has been maintained by attention he receives from parents and caregivers. To use non-contingent reinforcement, John’s parents and caregivers would start giving John attention every 15 minutes, regardless of what he was doing during that time. This attention would reduce John’s motivation to scream for attention because he is being satiated with attention.

In conclusion, there are several ways to use punishment appropriately and effectively. However, it is critical to understand how to use punishment and what to expect when using punishment. If you feel that a punishment procedure would be beneficial for your child, please talk with your consultant. They can help determine what punishment procedures are likely to be effective, as well as provide other options to help your child progress.

Christa Dalton, BS BCaBA


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward W. L., (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Vargas, J.S. (2013). Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Rutledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s