Positive and Negative Punishment

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen

February 2, 2023

Punishment in ABA terms has a different meaning than how most people use this term in everyday language. In ABA, punishment refers to the process of decreasing a behavior. Punishment can either be negative or positive. Let’s discuss these terms in more detail. 

What is positive punishment?

Positive punishment occurs when you add something following a behavior, which results in a decrease in that behavior. Consider this example. A police officer catches you speeding on the highway. He writes you a $300 ticket. In other words, he added something aversive. Receiving this ticket should decrease the likelihood of you speeding in the future. Punishment occurs if you stop speeding or speed less often after getting the ticket.

If you get a speeding ticket but continue speeding while driving, then punishment has not happened. For something to be a punishment, the future likelihood of the behavior must decrease. 

Here are a few more examples of positive punishment

  • Verbal scolding or reprimands. I.e., “No pushing your sister!”
  • Assigning chores, extra work, or other non-preferred activities.
  • Unpleasant sensory experiences. I.e., A child touches a hot stove and immediately feels pain.
  • Repeating an activity. I.e., A child slams their door, so their parent makes them open it and close it calmly three times. 

What is negative punishment?

Negative punishment occurs when you take something away from someone following a behavior. The result is a decrease in that behavior. A classic example of negative punishment is putting a child in time-out. A child hits their sibling, and their father tells them to sit in the timeout chair for three minutes. As with positive punishment, the timeout is only a punishment if the child engages in that behavior less often moving forward. 

Here are a few more examples of negative punishment

  • Removal of privileges. I.e., electronics at home or recess at school.
  • Late fees for paying a bill past the due date. 
  • Getting fired or demoted.
  • Putting money in a jar every time you engage in a particular behavior, like swearing.
  • Removing tokens on a token board 

Difference between positive and negative punishment.

Positive and negative punishment both decrease behaviors. The difference between the two procedures is whether you added or removed something. If you add something after a behavior, then it’s positive punishment. If you remove something after a behavior, then it’s negative punishment. 

Is punishment used in ABA therapy?

In ABA therapy, BCBAs use reinforcement procedures rather than punishment. There are many ethical and practical concerns with using punishment. Thus, ABA therapists rarely use punishment in modern ABA therapy sessions. Instead, therapists use positive reinforcement and functional communication training (FCT)

While punishment may decrease behaviors, it fails to teach the person what to do instead. Reinforcement and FCT help a child learn healthier behaviors to replace harmful ones.

Positive reinforcement occurs when you add something after a behavior. The result is an increase in that behavior. Positive reinforcement is often more effective and ethical than using punishment. FCT is also beneficial for behavior change. FCT uses positive reinforcement to increase alternative, positive behaviors. For example, imagine your child screams to get your attention. FCT might involve teaching your child to say, “hey, mom!” to get your attention.


Positive and negative punishment can decrease harmful behaviors. Yet, most of the time, there are better ways of modifying behavior. 

If you have concerns about your child's behavior, Songbird Therapy can help. Contact us today to discuss how we can meet your child’s unique needs. 

‍Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we're building a world where every child can access uniquely tailored, world-class care at home.


  • Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.
  • https://www.songbirdcare.com/articles/functional-communication-training-fct-in-aba-therapy?
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6743526/