Understanding the Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Parents often use both reinforcement and punishment as tools to modify their children's behavior or to help when working to improve their developmental skills, like sensory processing or fine motor skills. The main purpose of both negative and positive reinforcement is to boost the rate of specific behavior, but they have various differences and similarities. 

When you introduce the "reinforcement" concept to someone, they become encouraged or motivated to perform a repetitive behavior, which is either:

  • To avoid any unwanted stimulus.
  • To reward again or receive the wanted reinforcer.

Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is an operant conditioning concept that presents a desirable reinforcer, so the person repeats their behavior.

Negative reinforcement is an operant conditioning concept that presents specific reinforcers that increase the person's behavior to avoid the reinforcers.

Operant conditioning is a form of associative learning where reinforcement or punishment modifies the strength of the behavior. It's also something used to bring about such learning.

Positive Reinforcement Examples

Some examples would be:

  • You praise your child (reinforcing stimulus) for practicing their handwriting (behavior).
  • Your child receives money (reinforcing stimulus) for each "A" they receive on their report card (behavior).

Negative Reinforcement Examples

Some examples would be:

  • Your son washes the dishes (behavior) to stop you from nagging at them (aversive stimulus).
  • Your daughter can be excused from the table (aversive stimulus) after they have two more bites of their vegetables (behavior).

Like with reinforcement, the technical meanings of negative and positive punishment refer to removing or adding a factor in order to obtain the results. They don't refer to the impact or quality of the punishment.

Both punishment and reinforcement can modify behavior. However, the difference between them is punishment is meant to reduce the behavior, whereas reinforcement is used to increase the behavior. But these definitions are different from how we use them in day-to-day life. Usually, in speech, the term "reinforce" means "emphasize", while the term "punish" means "hurting".

Since, in the traditional sense, punishment has negative side effects (i.e. introducing undesirable stimulus), you should probably lean more towards positive parenting or positive reinforcement. But, you also don't want to overuse positive reinforcement, since too much of a good thing can produce an undesirable effect.

To learn different uses of positive and negative reinforcement to help modify your child's behavior, you could talk with their pediatric occupational therapist for some ideas.

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