Behavior Change and Reinforcement

August 10, 2021
by Danielle Kanouff

Danielle @ 3C

When we hear the word reinforcement, we think of supporting, emphasizing, or strengthening something. So, for example, the structure is reinforced when webinar engagement uses periodic polling or a study guide precedes a quiz.


In ABA teachings, reinforcement is defined as:


“When a stimulus change immediately follows a response and increases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions (Cooper, et al., 2017).”


Behavior revolves around the concept of reinforcement or, in other words, anything that happens right after a behavior. Reinforcement pairs with the consequence of the A-B-C sequence and can make the behavior more likely to occur in the future.


To generate behavior change, we follow this basic equation in ABA:


Stimulus + Response = Reinforcement


  • Stimulus is something that is occurring in the environment.
  • Response is the behavior.
  • Reinforcement indicates the behavior will occur more frequently in the future.


When we add a stimulus, it is considered positive. When we remove a stimulus, it is considered negative. In this case, the words positive and negative don’t mean good or bad.


Reinforcement is always regarded as increasing or maintaining a behavior, while punishment refers to decreasing a behavior. Consequently, reinforcement can be either positive or negative


Look at the table in the link below to help compare the difference between positive and negative reinforcement.


Here are some scenarios to help apply this information:


Positive Reinforcement: I give (add a stimulus) my dog a treat when she sits (her response/behavior) on my command. She continues to sit in the future each time I approach the treat jar. This positive reinforcement has increased her sitting behavior.


Negative Reinforcement: It starts to rain while driving, so I turn on my windshield wipers (my response/behavior) to remove the raindrops (remove a stimulus). Every time it rains, I turn on my wipers to remove the raindrops.


Sure, teaching a dog to sit or using your windshield wipers may seem easy or an instinct, but we must understand behavior change when working with clients.


It is imperative that we implement gradual steps when faced with challenging behaviors among patients. Thus, teaching takes time, repetition, and consistency.


Understanding how behavior is learned through reinforcement can help us care for our patients and plan how to change their behaviors.


Thanks for reading,




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

Picture created in Canva for ABA Inspirations


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