Consequences of Behavior (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on May 1, 2014

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the removal of an already operating aversive stimulus (negative reinforcer). As a consequence of the removal of the aversive stimulus, the target behavior is strengthened.

Axelrod and Hall (1999) has described the technique of negative reinforcement in the classroom setting as student performing a behavior and the teacher removing something the student dislikes.

As stated earlier, negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus in an effort to change the frequency of a behavior. In contrast, punishment is the addition of an aversive stimulus or the subtraction (taking away) of a pleasurable item or activity in an effort to change the frequency of a behavior.


A group of students is working very diligently at their desks after the teacher has stated that they will not be required to do homework assignments that weekend if their classroom assignments are completed before the end of the day.

In this example, the homework assignment, which was already given by the teacher, is the aversive stimulus (most students perceive homework as aversive). It is removed, and as a result the students’ in-classroom work is increased.


Don is twisting Tom’s arm. This is causing Tom considerable pain. Don says, “Say ‘Give,’ and I’ll let you go.” Tom, in agony, screams, “Give.” Don, with a smile on his innocent face, releases Tom’s arm, and the pain ends.

In this example, arm twisting, which was already giving Tom pain (and Don pleasure), is the aversive stimulus. It is removed, and as a result Tom’s comfort level is increased.

The following example is provided to offer additional clarification of negative reinforcement.


Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds have a 2-year-old daughter, Alice, who wakes up crying (aversive stimulus) in the middle of the night. She wants to sleep with Mommy and Daddy. In an effort to get their sleep and stop Alice from crying, the parents permit her to sleep with them (thus removing the aversive stimulus of crying). By allowing Alice to sleep in their bed, the parents are increasing both their and Alice’s sleeping behavior.

However, the parents’ method of stopping Alice’s crying (allowing Alice to sleep with them) actually reinforces the frequency of the crying.

Cipani (1995) suggests that there is empirical research that links inappropriate behaviors during instructional tasks with factors other than teacher attention. Research has found that inappropriate behavior may be maintained because of its effect on the lesson or assignment.


Mrs. McGinnis has given Marylou a spelling assignment. Marylou has a reading problem. For her, the assignment is very aversive. She hates spelling. She has tried over and over to learn her spelling words, without success. Immediately after being given the assignment, Marylou becomes restless and goes off task. She begins to tap her pencil on the desk, hum loudly, and tap her foot.

Mrs. McGinnis becomes distracted by Marylou’s inappropriate behavior and reprimands her. Marylou answers the teacher back and as a consequence is sent to the back of the classroom to sit in the “think about your behavior” chair. She leaves her spelling on her desk.

In this example, spelling is an aversive or a negative reinforcer for Marylou. It is interfering with her appropriate classroom behavior.

Cipani suggests three questions that teachers should ask to diagnose whether negative reinforcement is a factor in maintaining inappropriate behavior:

  • Does the inappropriate behavior serve to stop instruction or the completion of an assignment?
  • Does the learner have the skill and ability to complete the assignment task?
  • Does the frequency of inappropriate behavior increase when specific instructional conditions are present?

Finally, Cipani suggests that to remediate behavior problems caused by negative reinforcement, the teacher either (a) provide the student with a strong incentive to engage in the aversive task or (b) develop the student’s level of competency in the task to a point at which it becomes less aversive.

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