Reinforcement…What Is It?

February 22, 2018 - Anna Washabaugh, RBT

Reinforcement…What Is It?

By Anna Washabaugh, Registered Behavior Technician

If you’re familiar with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), there’s a good chance you’ve heard the word, “reinforcement.”  Maybe you’ve read it in your child’s notebook, heard it at a meeting, or just simply know the word. But do you know how important it is in shaping behavior? Not just your kid’s behavior — ALL of our behaviors.  What we do every single day is all thanks to reinforcement.

All behavior has a consequence that happens immediately after it that makes that behavior occur more or less in the future. Reinforcement is something occurring after a behavior that makes the behavior more likely to happen again in the future. Simply, we all do things because of the consequences. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Pam goes to work every day and gets a paycheck at the end of the week. The consequence of getting her pay check reinforcers her to return to work on Monday.
  • Marcus eats all of his food at dinner so his mom gives him a bowl of ice cream.  Tomorrow at dinner, he’s likely to finish all his food again.
  • Charlie left his house without a coat on and he was freezing cold. So, he ran back inside and grabbed a coat, which made him warm up. He’s more likely to put on his coat before leaving his house next time.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Charlie has been reinforced by his coat, which helps him to do that behavior in the future. As ABA therapists, we use reinforcement to teach behaviors. In fact, there are two types of reinforcement. There is positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Don’t think of these as “good” and “bad” but rather “adding” and “taking away.” Positive reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus (a toy, candy, praise, the motor room, etc.) after a behavior occurs, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future. Negative reinforcement is the removal of a stimulus (chores, a bad smell, the buzzing of an alarm clock, etc.) after a behavior occurs, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future. Here are some examples:

  • Jane receives a cookie after she uses the potty. (This is positive reinforcement because a cookie was added and Jane will likely use the potty again next time.)
  • Joe takes an aspirin and his headache goes away.(This is negative reinforcement because the headache was removed and Joe will likely take an aspirin next time, too.)
Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Reinforcement is the bread and butter of ABA. Some individuals may think that this sounds like bribery. However, ABA doesn’t use bribery, which is actually very different from reinforcement.  Bribery occurs before an act, benefits the person delivering the payoff and is a single occurrence of a behavior that is not likely to be repeated in the future. In summary, reinforcement happens after the behavior and strengthens the likelihood of the behavior happening again in the future.

Remember, for something to be considered reinforcement, it MUST occur after the behavior AND increase the likelihood of that behavior being repeated. To learn about our next training topic titled, “Following Motivation,” click here.

P.S. If you received enjoyment from this post, you’re likely to read others in the future (thanks to reinforcement)!



Alberto, P.A. & Troutman, A.C. (2013). Applied behavior analysis for teacher (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Dahl, N. (2016).  Bribes vs. reinforcement. [Blog post]. Retrieved from



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February 22, 2018, Anna Washabaugh, RBT

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