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My BCBA talks funny

When I first got into the field of applied behavior analysis I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had just left the secondary education environment where I lived with 25-40 highschool students in a dormitory. I was the administrator (Dean). Students from China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the U.S. Mainland and Hawaiian islanders lived in the dorm, guys upstairs and girls downstairs. My apartment was downstairs. The 7 years I spend living, teaching, working, crying, praying, telling stories to, mentoring, tutoring, and sheparding these students is an experience I wouldn’t change for anything. BUT, I was burned out by politics and consistent understaffing. Some years were better than others but I worked hard to give the students an experience that was positive.

The most important foundational skill I focused on for the students was how to think and make choices based on their own experience, the evidence they found, and the consequences they wanted.

After leaving education I applied for a job near my home in Aiea, Hawaiʻi. Nearby there was a company that was hiring. Both my son and his girlfriend had worked at the company as registered behavior technicians (RBT). They said I would love it.

I applied and was hired. The first thing I was told was to take a 40-hour class online (this is standard). The course was frustrating as I had to learn a new vocabulary that defined familiar words in new ways. For example there is a theory that behavior is shaped by it’s consequences and the consequences are defined as the following:


My definitions: A structural member such as a strut or cross beam

Additional people or troops

ABA definition: A consequence that increases a response rate

You see the dilemma here. To complicate it further ABA further defines reinforcement as either positive and negative. This idea is pretty straight forward. If reinforcement is a consequence of a behavior it easy to see that positive reinforcement is something given or added (+) to someone. If you run 2 laps around the gym you 2 points. Sure no problem the points are “added” for the laps.

Negative reinforcement isn’t too difficult to grasp either. Negative is something you take away (-). If you turn off (-) the terrible music as a result of my using the word “please” then you have used negative reinforcement to hopefully increase my use of the word “please.”

Okay I was trucking along in my new terminology until I came upon punishment. How the word punishment came to be chosen was an unfortunate event in the history of ABA along with numerous other unfortunate events. Punishment is fraught with our own, personal interpretations that are not particularly helpful.


My definitions: Making someone suffer

Hurt someone or put them in jail for hurting someone

ABA definition: A consequence that decreases a response rate

To complicate matters there is a positive and negative punishment. A positive punishment is when do something to (+) the person or you add (+) something to the environment that is aversive. A negative punishment is when you take away (-) something like when you have to pay a fine and you give some of your money is taken from you.

So, there you have it. The first two terms I was introduced to. The kicker though, is that you don’t actually know if something is a reinforcer or a punisher until later. You can only tell if a behavior was reinforced if it increases. The same holds true with punishment, you can only identify something as a punisher if it decreases behavior.

Well . . . having raised two boys I thought when I reprimanded them for throwing their dirty clothes on the floor I was “teaching” them or “punishing” the behavior. Nope. The behavior of throwing dirty clothes on the floor did not decrease . . . so . . . according to ABA we would say that the behavior was not punished because it did not decrease. Oh.

Thinking back I don’t know if I was able to decrease any behavior of my children by talking about it. In fact, I may have reinforced the behavior because I gave them my attention. Ugh.

So, how does this shake out then? How do we know what to do?

You can run your own test. Write down what kinds of reinforcement increased a specific behavior and what kind of punishment decreased a specific behavior. I bet you can cite all kinds of examples.

Were they negative or positive?

As a BCBA I analyze what an individual finds reinforcing and/or punishing. Then I can create a supportive, reinforcing environment for the individual to work on their skills. Sometimes the environment we create is so reinforcing an individual will work hard on their skills without problem behaviors for a surprising period of time. BUT the problem behaviors are something we try to be very sensitive to because it is a form of communication.

Reach out and let us know how your list of reinforcement and punishment turned out.

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