“Dear Behavior BFF, I’ve read enough of your work to know you don’t recommend punishing your child in your articles. But as a parent, punishment is typically what is easy and what works. Do you have an answer to punishment that can help get my child to stop being disobedient?”

You are correct. You will not find a punishment procedure recommend as a blanket intervention. Instead, I write about strategies and tools we consider positive behavior supports. We focus on building up desired skills and behaviors through positive strategies.

But does that help get to the root of your problem – how to stop or decrease a problem behavior? Is there a positive behavior support answer to that? Why, yes. Let’s take a look at something called differential reinforcement.

Differential reinforcement:  “consists of reinforcing particular behavior(s) of a given class (or form, pattern or topography) while placing those same behaviors on extinction and/or punishing them when they fail to match performance standards or when they occur under inappropriate stimulus conditions” (Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace, 2014).

In easier terms- we reinforce desired behavior and withhold reinforcement for undesired behavior all at the same time.  With differential reinforcement, we need to teach an alternative or replacement behavior for those problem behaviors. What CAN your child do instead? Teach them, and then reinforce that new alternative replacement behavior when it happens.

How about a few examples to show how this helps decrease problem behaviors, even for busy parents?

Johnny interrupts his parents non-stop. This gets on his parents’ nerves and they end up yelling at Johnny and/or sending him to time out every single time.  Upon learning about differential reinforcement, Johnny’s mom teaches him to say “excuse me” one time and then wait to be addressed. When he interrupts his parents ignore him (withhold their attention). When Johnny says “excuse me” his parents look at him and talk to him (give the reinforcement). Over time they can increase how long Johnny needs to wait for his turn to talk. This will decrease the interrupting. Instead of punishing Johnny for interrupting, differential reinforcement can help it decrease while simultaneously increasing the desired alternative.

Whenever Sally’s parents ask her to do something, she yells “NO!” at them and does not follow directions. Sally’s parents reason with her, using logic and reason to explain to her why they need her to do that task. Small chores such as putting on a pair of shoes can easily take 10 minutes or more. Using differential reinforcement, Sally’s parents teach her to say “Okay” or “Yes ma’am/ sir” and then follow directions. When Sally’s parents ask her to do something, they guide her to complete the task quickly. When she answers politely and without protest, they chat with her and be silly (giving reinforcement for alternative behavior). When she protests, they do not talk to her at all (withhold reinforcement), but still guide her to complete the task.  Sally learns that she always has to follow the directions and if she wants lots of fun attention while doing it, she should say “Okay” or “Yes ma’am/ sir”. Over time, Sally’s parents can increase her independent completion of tasks.

Differential reinforcement packs a 1-2 punch. 1- decrease problem behavior. 2- increase a desired alternative replacement behavior.

When there is a behavior you want (or need) to get rid of in your home- punishment isn’t always the answer. Positive behavior supports, especially differential reinforcement, can help!


**A quick note: punishment procedures serve a purpose and have a time and a place. Please seek the advice of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst for individualized behavior support plans.

Want to learn more ways to use behavior analysis to make life easier as a parent? Check out Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity!

*This article can also be found at Behavioral Science in the 21st Century! Follow all of my Behavior BFF articles there!

Learn more about differential reinforcement:

Blanco, S. (2015, September 3). Tip of the Week: Why Differential Reinforcement is Preferred to Punishment [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.difflearn.com/2015/09/03/tip-of-the-week-why-differential-reinforcement-is-preferred-to-punishment/

Cooper J.O, Heron T.E, Heward W.L. Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson; 2007

Deitz, D.E.D., & Repp, A.C. (1983). Reducing behavior through reinforcement. Exceptional Education Quarterly, 3, 34-46.

Hanley, G.P. & Tiger, J.H. (2011). Differential reinforcement procedures. In Fisher, W.W., Piazza, C.C., & Roane, H.S. (Eds.), Handbook of Applied Behavior Analysis (229-249). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Mayer, G. Roy, Sulzer-Azaroff-B. & Wallace, M. (2013). Behavior analysis for lasting change (3rd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.