Reinforcement is a fundamental principle in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and behavior psychology. It refers to a process by which a behavior is strengthened or increased by the consequences that follow it. In simpler terms, reinforcement encourages the repetition of a behavior by providing a positive outcome or removing a negative one. This principle is crucial in ABA therapy, especially when working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders.

Types of Reinforcement

Reinforcement is broadly classified into two categories: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Both types aim to increase the likelihood of a behavior, but they do so in different ways.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves presenting a favorable stimulus after a desired behavior is exhibited. This addition of a positive outcome makes it more likely that the behavior will be repeated. For example, a child receives praise or a treat for completing a task, encouraging them to complete tasks in the future.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement:

  • Verbal Praise: Complimenting a child for good behavior.
  • Rewards: Providing toys, stickers, or treats for completing a task.
  • Privileges: Allowing extra playtime or screen time as a reward for good behavior.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves removing an aversive stimulus after a desired behavior is exhibited. The removal of this negative outcome makes it more likely that the behavior will be repeated. For instance, a student who completes their homework to avoid detention is likely to continue completing their homework.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement:

  • Escape from Unpleasant Tasks: Allowing a break from a difficult assignment after a certain amount of work is completed.
  • Avoidance of Negative Consequences: Removing restrictions when a child follows rules or behaves appropriately.

Reinforcement in ABA Therapy

In ABA therapy, reinforcement is strategically used to shape and modify behaviors. Therapists carefully select reinforcers that are meaningful and motivating for each individual. The process involves identifying the behaviors that need to be increased and consistently applying reinforcement to encourage these behaviors.

Identifying Reinforcers

Effective reinforcement requires identifying what is motivating to the individual. This can vary greatly from person to person. Some common methods for identifying reinforcers include:

  • Preference Assessments: Evaluating which items or activities the individual prefers.
  • Observations: Noting what the individual chooses during free time.
  • Interviews and Surveys: Asking caregivers or the individual about preferred items or activities.

Schedules of Reinforcement

The timing and frequency of reinforcement also play a crucial role in its effectiveness. There are different schedules of reinforcement that can be applied, each with its own impact on behavior.

Types of Reinforcement Schedules:

  • Continuous Reinforcement: Providing reinforcement every time the desired behavior occurs. This is often used during the initial stages of learning a new behavior.
  • Intermittent Reinforcement: Providing reinforcement on a partial basis. This can be based on a fixed number of responses (fixed ratio), a variable number of responses (variable ratio), a fixed amount of time (fixed interval), or a variable amount of time (variable interval). Intermittent reinforcement is used to maintain behaviors over the long term.

Practical Applications of Reinforcement

Reinforcement is applied in various settings, from clinical environments to everyday life. Here are some examples of how reinforcement is used in different contexts:

In Education

Teachers use reinforcement to encourage positive behaviors and academic performance. For example, students might earn points for good behavior that can be exchanged for rewards.

In Parenting

Parents use reinforcement to teach and encourage desired behaviors in their children. This might include giving praise for good manners or providing a small reward for completing chores.

In the Workplace

Employers use reinforcement to motivate employees and increase productivity. This can include performance bonuses, recognition programs, or additional time off for meeting targets.

Challenges and Considerations

While reinforcement is a powerful tool, it must be used thoughtfully and ethically. Some challenges and considerations include:

  • Over-reliance on External Rewards: It’s important to ensure that individuals do not become solely dependent on external rewards for motivation. Gradually transitioning to intrinsic motivation is crucial.
  • Consistency: Reinforcement must be applied consistently to be effective. Inconsistent reinforcement can lead to confusion and unpredictability.
  • Individual Differences: What works as a reinforcer for one person may not work for another. Personalizing reinforcement strategies is essential for success.


Reinforcement is a cornerstone of ABA therapy and a powerful technique for shaping behavior. By understanding and applying the principles of positive and negative reinforcement, therapists, educators, parents, and employers can effectively encourage and maintain desired behaviors. At Chicago ABA Therapy, we are committed to using evidence-based reinforcement strategies to support the growth and development of individuals with ASD and other developmental disorders.

By integrating reinforcement into our therapeutic practices, we help our clients achieve meaningful and lasting behavioral changes, enhancing their quality of life and fostering independence.

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