Is It Really Negative Reinforcement?

As is the case with many behavioral terms, "negative reinforcement" is one that we often hear but may not completely understand!

In our previous post on reinforcement, we discussed that reinforcement leads to an increase in (or maintained rate of) behavior.  This is always the case, no matter what type of reinforcement you are using (i.e., positive or negative)!  We have also discussed that the terms positive and negative may have a different meaning than what you think when applied to behavior.  When utilizing negative reinforcement, the behavior you are trying to change will always be increased or maintained if used appropriately.  Contrary to popular belief, negative reinforcement is not punishment!

So what does negative reinforcement really mean?  The technical definition is the removal of an aversive stimulus that leads to an increase in the future frequency of the behavior.  

Let’s break this down….

Reinforcement always increases behavior, and the term “negative” refers to the removal of something that you do not like want/like.  A very simple example will illustrate this perfectly:  Imagine you have a headache and you take Tylenol in an effort to get rid of it.  A little while after taking the Tylenol, your headache goes away.  What are you likely to do the next time you have a headache?  Well, because the Tylenol successfully removed your headache, you are more likely to take it again the next time!  In this situation, your headache was removed (that's the "negative" piece) and your Tylenol-taking behavior was increased/maintained (that's the "reinforcement" piece).  This is a perfect and very common example of negative reinforcement.  The future frequency of your behavior (i.e., taking Tylenol) increases because it got rid of your headache (i.e., aversive stimulus).

So how does this apply to teaching our children?  Negative reinforcement is a procedure commonly used in situations where your child wants to avoid something he/she does not like.  Let’s say you are doing homework with your child and he begins to whine and complain that he does not want to finish his homework.  After 20 minutes of whining, you decide to give him a break because you do not want to listen to the complaining anymore! What do you think this did to your child's whining/complaining behavior?  Well, he/she likely learned that if he whines and complains, he gets to stop doing his homework; so next time he does not want to complete his homework, he will likely whine and complain.  If this occurs, then you have negatively reinforced that whining behavior.  The behavior will increase (i.e., reinforcement) because you allowed the removal of homework (i.e., something aversive).

Now keep in mind that this procedure is often used to teach children many adaptive and functional skills.  For example, this can include teaching a child to appropriately refuse something they do not like or want instead of screaming or engaging in a tantrum.  Consider a child who engages in a tantrum every time he is asked to do something he does not want to do.  In this situation, we may potentially utilize negative reinforcement to teach him a replacement skill, such as saying "no, thank you".  When he says "no, thank you" rather than tantruming, we might allow him to escape that activity, thereby negatively reinforcing the replacement skill. 

So next time you use the term negative reinforcement, remember that you are really referring to increasing a behavior, not punishing (i.e. decreasing) it.

Feel free to contact us with suggestions on how to apply this at home and for appropriate skills you can teach using this procedure.

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