Reframing Our Approach to Problem Behavior

Defining Consequences

In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), consequences are events that take place immediately following a behavior (desirable or undesirable). These consequences can either make that behavior more or less likely to occur in the future. If the consequence makes the behavior more likely to occur in the future, it’s called reinforcement. On the other hand, if the consequence decreases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again, it’s called punishment.

  • Reinforcement = anything added or taken away after a behavior happens to increase the likelihood of that behavior happening again (ex. Points added after positive behaviors, such as completing a routine or following a rule. Could also be something like having a non-preferred activity or item removed.)
  • Punishment = anything added or taken away after a behavior happens to decrease the likelihood of that behavior happening again (ex. Getting extra chores or having points taken away after undesirable behaviors.)

Punishment – Tackling the Problem

Often, our knee-jerk reaction is to tackle the problem behavior: what can we do to eliminate this from happening again? Punishment seems logical! It can be very effective! Unfortunately, however, it often comes with a myriad of issues. By focusing on problem behaviors, typical consequences that often follow these – like scolding or time outs – could draw more attention to the child or get them out of something that they’d rather not do, and these actions may inadvertently reinforce rather than punish the unwanted behavior. In addition to modeling behaviors that may be undesirable and putting a strain on parent-child relationships, punishment procedures can cause emotional outbursts, result in increased problem behaviors, and decrease desirable behaviors (Cooper, Heron and Heward, 2007).

In practice, ABA professionals, as guided by the BACB’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts, always default to using reinforcement procedures first. Only after these methods have been exhausted should punishment procedures be considered. It should be noted that there are special cases of extremely severe or dangerous behaviors where the urgent nature of ceasing a problem behavior may warrant immediately using an aversive procedure. If it is decided that a punishment procedure is necessary for a particular behavior, reinforcement procedures for appropriate replacement behaviors should always be included. In addition, because of the potentially serious side effects, increased supervision of the process and staff training is critical throughout the program’s implementation. Punishment programs should also be closely monitored to determine effectiveness, as well as include a plan to cease the aversive procedures when they are no longer necessary.

Mother punishing her child

If behavior professionals require extensive oversight and caution when, if ever, utilizing this type of method, it should make those outside of the profession take pause before considering implementing punishment within their own home or classroom. As a parent myself, I have been tempted to take this approach because it can feel satisfying to have “dealt with” the problem behaviors happening in front of me. I particularly hear parents fall into punishment default when problem behaviors occur in public forums and they feel social pressures to “do something” about their child’s behavior in the moment. While it may stop the behaviors in the moment and alleviate social pressures, it is critical that we ask ourselves several questions: Have I exhausted a positive approach? Is this behavior extremely severe/dangerous? Will this consequence (physically/emotionally/mentally) harm my child? Will it model undesirable behaviors? Will it strain our relationship? Is this consequence well-planned and thought through, or am I reacting emotionally? More often than not, there is a better approach.

Reinforcement – Building Up What We’d Like to See

So, if punishment is seen as a last-resort and potentially harmful, what should a parent’s approach be when faced with problem behaviors at home? Rather than focusing time, energy, and attention directly on problem behaviors, many parents could benefit from readjusting their efforts toward the behaviors they would like to see instead. Often, thinking about problem behaviors that you’d like to target and reframing them in a positive way is an effective approach. For instance, if a parent or teacher stated that a child’s concerning behaviors were hitting others, climbing on the table, and running away in parking lots, they could rephrase them as positive behaviors similar to the following: keeping hands to self, keeping feet on the floor, and holding someone’s hand while in the parking lot. These behaviors are different and even incompatible with the problem behaviors previously stated.

Making and following a plan to reinforce and praise these other behaviors encourages parents to “catch” their kids engaging in positive behavior, reinforcing what they want to see happen. Sometimes, this requires some teaching to take place. If, for instance, a child typically engages in a problem behavior to get the attention of others, it may be necessary to teach him or her how to get others’ attention in an appropriate, non-harmful manner, such as calling their name or tapping them on the shoulder. The child may need to be explicitly shown what to do in these scenarios through modeling and practice. Investing in and truly reinforcing these positive behaviors means that their occurrence will increase; as a consequence, the occurrence of the problem behaviors would naturally decrease, particularly if you are also taking measures to avoid reinforcing the problem behaviors at the same time.

To maximize the effectiveness of this approach when establishing new behaviors, consistency is key. Rather than reacting to behaviors in an emotional manner, follow straightforward rules so that your child knows what to expect and you and other caregivers know how to respond. This can be as simple as the following:

  1.   If (child) does (desired replacement behaviors), parent(s) will give reward and praise.
  2.   If (child) does NOT engage in (desired replacement behaviors), parent(s) will not give reward and praise.

By maintaining consistency with a simple set of ground rules, you can help prevent fickle, emotional decision-making and help build trust.

Mother modeling behavior for child

This approach to behavior can be effective in the long run, and it can promote a more positive parent-child relationship centered on coaching and solutions rather than fear and wrong-doing. Likewise, if a tool, such as your fitness tracker or your child’s Goally, focuses on reinforcing desirable behaviors, rather than punishing undesirable behaviors, you or your child are likely to have a more positive relationship with that tool. When positive behaviors take center stage in our conversations with others, motivation to keep the conversation going by engaging in more positive behaviors is likely.


Rachel Dowse is a Goally team member, former middle school teacher, and a practicing BCBA residing in Nashville, TN. When she’s not working, she loves spending time with her husband and two children hiking, playing outdoors, and drinking good coffee with a book in hand.


Editor’s note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.