Great work, you can go: Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is a consequence that impacts the future probability of a behaviour by removing something from the environment following a target behaviour.

Operant Conditioning: explains how events that follow behaviours impact the future probability of the behaviour.

This typical involves behaviours that follow an antecedent (event before the behaviour) that we find aversive or unpleasant. These can be explained in terms of the three-term contingency:

ABC negreinforcement

Negative reinforcement increases the likelihood we will engage in the target behaviour again if we successful avoided or escaped the aversive or unpleasant event (antecedent). Children can often want to escape or avoid difficult tasks and demands within the classroom or at home. They may engage in challenging behaviours when demands are about to be place or are placed. This can make teaching and living difficult. Typically, Behaviour Analyst try to replace the challenging behaviours with appropriate behaviours, for instance asking appropriately for a break (Functional Communication Training; FCT). An alternative approach is Escape extinction, which involves withholding the reinforcement (of escape) when the behaviour occurs. This approach can be difficult, due to the severity of behaviours, or difficulties with prompting the learner or child to complete the task (no escape).

Daniels discusses Negative reinforcement in his book ‘Bringing out the best in people’ in regards to business. He discusses that employees often are “behaving in new ways, not because they want to, but because they have to. Doing things because you have to do them is a sure sign that negative reinforcement is the consequence at work”. He also discusses the impact of using negative reinforcement:

“as long as the boss is physically present, he can get a certain performance. When the threat [the boss] is removed by absence of the punisher, performance drops.” (page 49)

Negative reinforcement works by avoiding the “punisher”, in this example, the boss who could fire you. This is important for Behaviour Analysts working in education, as we want the skills we are teaching to generalise and that our learners to use their maths, social, communication, self-help skills (or whatever we are teaching), when we are and aren’t around. By using positive reinforcement when teaching this skills, we will make these skills motivating, and will avoid these skills occurring just when we are around, so we will give the learner a break after.

“performance stops when the goal is reached” (page 50)

This also means that the learner may do the minimal amount of responding that is required to earn their break or end the task. When using positive reinforcement, you’re learner may continue to learn or socialise when the goal is reached, because learning is motivating.

“Because negative reinforcement cannot occur without some degree of fear, the work environment is filled with stress” (page 51).

In the work environment, if someone is working to avoid being fired because they need to get paid (and everyone needs to get paid to live), then that person will probably consider themselves to have stress, or appear stressed to others around them. They probably won’t enjoy going to work or being at work. The same is true for our learners. They will be dreading the moment when their free time ends and demands will start. You will probably notice challenging behaviours occur when this transition is beginning, before work is even presented!

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Researchers have compared the effects of using positive and negative reinforcement on responding during a variety of tasks (Lalli et al, 1999 & Slocum & Vollmer, 2015). They found that even when challenging behaviour still resulted in escape from demands, but compliance resulted in positive reinforcement, there were higher rates of compliance. These results that using positive reinforcement is an effective intervention for increasing compliance, without using escape extinction (blocking or preventing your learner from escaping demands). This extends and supports previous research. Escape Extinction can be difficult for certain learners who are older, bigger/taller, or strong, or skills that are difficult to prompt.

You can also read the October 2017 edition of Busy Analytical Bee in which I reviewed Escape Maintained Behaviours.

Preview of October 2017 Edition

Even if you have programmed to deliver positive reinforcement but still experiencing challenges working with some learners with escape maintained behaviours, you may have to reassess the reinforcement. It may have lost is value, or may not be able to compete with the value of escape. Consider using reinforcement that is a higher value, denser, or pairing two or more reinforcers together to compete with the value of escape. It is important that we strive to use powerful positive reinforcement with all targets so that we make learning fun and motivating! When we do we will see our learners generalising their skills to new environments, to new people and these behaviours may be more natural.

Feel free to contact me about any questions or comments, by commenting below, emailing me at, using the contact form, or messaging me via Facebook or twitter.


Daniels, A. C. (1999). Bringing out the Best in people: How to Apply the Astonishing power of positive reinforcement. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Lalli, J. S., Vollmer, T. R., Progar, P. R., Wright, C., Borrero, J., Daniel, D., Hoffner,-Barthold, C., Tocco, K., & May, W. (1999). Competition between positive and negative reinforcement in the treatment of escape behavior, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 32, 285-296.

Slocum, S. K., & Vollmer, T. R. (2015). A comparison of positive and negative reinforcement for compliance to treat problem behavior maintained by escape, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 48(3), 563-574.


Further Reading/Listening:

BehaviorBabe, (2013, August, 10). Presession Pairing. Retrieved :

Hanley, G. Practical Functional Assessment. Retrieved from:

Shramm R. Seven Steps to Earning Instructional Control. Retrieved: August 2018, from:

The Behavioral Observations Podcast, (2017, September). Session 34: Megan Miller Returns!.

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