Behavioral consequences (results) have a direct influence on the behavior a child exhibits. Behavior can be modified, that is, increased, initiated, or extinguished, by systematic manipulation of its consequences. The possible consequences of human behavior are classified as positive reinforcement, extinction, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the presentation of a desirable reinforcer after a behavior has been exhibited. The reinforcer, or consequences of behavior, tends to increase or sustain the frequency or duration with which the behavior is exhibited in the future (Alberto & Troutman, 2002). Everyone receives positive reinforcement throughout each day. The process of positive reinforcement involves increasing the probability of a behavior recurring by reinforcing it with a reinforcer that is appropriate and meaningful to the individual (Downing et al., 1991). A reinforcer is reinforcing only if it is perceived as reinforcing by the individual.


Kevin has received a superior report card and is praised by his parents and brother. As a result of the positive reinforcer (praise), the probability of Kevin’s continuing to study hard and receive superior report cards in the future is increased. If Kevin’s report card were ignored or severely criticized because of a single poor grade, the probability of his continuing his efforts and receiving superior report cards in the future would be decreased.

Ms. Pompey has identified stars as positive reinforcers with her classroom group. She puts a star on Cynthia’s paper because Cynthia has successfully completed her homework assignment. Cynthia enjoys receiving stars. By placing a star on Cynthia’s paper, Ms. Pompey knows she is increasing the probability of Cynthia’s completing her homework assignments in the future.


Extinction is the removal of a reinforcer that is sustaining or increasing a behavior (Alberto & Troutman, 2002). Extinction is an effective method for decreasing undesirable behaviors exhibited by individuals (Downing et al., 1991). Unplanned and unsystematically applied extinction techniques have been naturally applied throughout history. For example, parents tend to ignore many unacceptable behaviors exhibited by children, such as roughhousing, arguing, and showing reluctance to go to bed, in the hope that these behaviors will decrease in frequency. The ineffectiveness of ignoring as an unplanned intervention is frequently a result of the inconsistency of its application rather than its inadequacy as a behavior change technique. We insist that there be no roughhousing or arguing and that the child be in bed at the designated time one day but do not insist on these rules the next day. The inconsistency on our part, as a teacher or parent, tends to confuse children and reinforce the unacceptable behavior.

Extinction involves the removal or withdrawal of the reinforcer responsible for maintaining behavior. In the classroom setting, the target behavior will be extinguished once the reinforcer has been withdrawn for a sufficient period of time.


John, a ninth grader, was always making funny sounds with his mouth in Mrs. Rawlin’s class. These activities got him a lot of attention not only from his peers but also from Mrs. Rawlin. She usually stopped the class and told John how immature he was behaving for his age and that he was making a fool of himself. The class responded with laughter. John laughed the loudest. After several meetings with the school counselor about John’s classroom behavior, Mrs. Rawlin agreed to implement another approach.

The next time John made a funny sound, Mrs. Rawlin told the class to ignore him and that those students who did would be rewarded with free time. John continued to make sounds for a few days, but because of the lack of attention from peers and teacher, the behavior began to change. Over the course of 7 school days, John’s behavior was extinguished, and Mrs. Rawlin was able to conduct her class without disruptions. John is now receiving attention from his peers and Mrs. Rawlin for appropriate behavior.

Eight-year-old Robin was constantly tattling on every child who committed the slightest transgression within his purview. Robin’s teacher, Ms. Fye, was reinforcing Robin’s behavior by responding and attending to him when he tattled on others. Finally, she planned an intervention program employing extinction to decrease Robin’s behavior. She would ignore all his tattling.

Each time Robin approached her to tattle on a classmate, Ms. Fye did one of the following:

  1. intervened before Robin had an opportunity to tattle and focused his attention on another topic (picture, book, and so on)
  2. turned her back on him and attended to another child who was performing appropriately
  3. turned her back on him and walked away without any sign of recognition

During the initial phase of the behavior change process. Robin’s tattling increased for a brief period. As the program continued, the behavior decreased and was extinguished. In addition to extinguishing their inappropriate behavior (making funny sounds, tattling), John and Robin appear to be learning appropriate ways of gaining attention and acceptance (McSweeney, 2002).

During the extinction process, there are two behavior response phases. During the initial phase, immediately after the reinforcer sustaining the behavior has been removed, the target behavior usually increases or decreases dramatically. During the second phase, the target behavior changes systematically.

The response during the initial phase is a natural one that occurs when an individual is suddenly confronted with a situation in which established methods of gaining goals become nonfunctional. It is natural to become confused under such conditions and to continue to try the previously effective method of attaining a goal.

It is during this initial phase that beginning practitioners frequently throw up their hands in frustration and abandon a project. However, if they persist, the behavior will in all probability extinguish.

The teacher or parent should be patient and consistent; the behavior will change.

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.


Punishment, a group of behavioral reduction procedures, appears to be the most frequently used of the behavior change techniques. The behavior reduction procedures include, from the least to the most intrusive and restrictive, differential reinforcement, extinction, verbal aversives, response cost, time-out, overcorrection, and physical aversives (Kerr & Nelson, 2002).

Although it is frequently used with children, punishment is perhaps the least effective of the behavior management interventions discussed in this text. Those using punishment have been reinforced by its immediate result; however, it has been determined that the long-term effects of punishment are limited. McDaniel (1980) points out that punishment tends to suppress the undesirable behavior rather than extinguish it. This suppression is of short duration, and frequently the behavior recurs in the absence of the punisher.

Punishment is viewed by the behavior management practitioner as two distinct operations. Punishment is accomplished by the addition of an aversive stimulus to the environment. Examples are paddling, electric shock, additional homework, and the like. Punishment may also be seen as the subtraction (taking away) of a pleasurable item or activity. Examples include loss of extracurricular activities, recess, and the like. Punishment is not to be confused with extinction (see earlier section).

It can be stated that some punishments will remove some unacceptable behaviors (Shea, Bauer, & Lynch, 1989). It has been found, however, that when a punished behavior recurs, it usually does so at a rate higher than before the punishment was originally imposed. Another concern associated with punishment is its potential and actual effect on the physical and emotional health of the child. In some cases, punishment may cause emotional problems. The fact that the punished child identifies the punishment with the punisher rather than with the inappropriate behavior should be of great concern to teachers and parents who, as previously discussed, are models for children. Children who are punished or abused often punish or abuse their children. The results of punishment do not appear sufficient to justify its use as a behavior change agent.