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Behavior Change and Reinforcement

Danielle Kanouff

When we hear the word reinforcement, we think of supporting, emphasizing, or strengthening something. So, for example, the structure is reinforced when webinar engagement uses periodic polling or a study guide precedes a quiz.

In ABA teachings, reinforcement is defined as:

“When a stimulus change immediately follows a response and increases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions (Cooper, et al., 2017).”

Behavior revolves around the concept of reinforcement or, in other words, anything that happens right after a behavior. Reinforcement pairs with the consequence of the A-B-C sequence and can make the behavior more likely to occur in the future.

To generate behavior change, we follow this basic equation in ABA:

Stimulus + Response = Reinforcement

  • Stimulus is something that is occurring in the environment.
  • Response is the behavior.
  • Reinforcement indicates the behavior will occur more frequently in the future.

When we add a stimulus, it is considered positive. When we remove a stimulus, it is considered negative. In this case, the words positive and negative don’t mean good or bad.

Reinforcement is always regarded as increasing or maintaining a behavior, while punishment refers to decreasing a behavior. Consequently, reinforcement can be either positive or negative.

Look at the table in the link below to help compare the difference between positive and negative reinforcement:

Here are some scenarios to help apply this information:

Positive Reinforcement: I give (add a stimulus) my dog a treat when she sits (her response/behavior) on my command. She continues to sit in the future each time I approach the treat jar. This positive reinforcement has increased her sitting behavior.

Negative Reinforcement: It starts to rain while driving, so I turn on my windshield wipers (my response/behavior) to remove the raindrops (remove a stimulus). Every time it rains, I turn on my wipers to remove the raindrops.

Sure, teaching a dog to sit or using your windshield wipers may seem easy or an instinct, but we must understand behavior change when working with clients.

It is imperative that we implement gradual steps when faced with challenging behaviors among patients. Thus, teaching takes time, repetition, and consistency.

Understanding how behavior is learned through reinforcement can help us care for our patients and plan how to change their behaviors.

Thanks for reading,

~ Danielle


  • Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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1. Instruction

2. Modeling




While learning new math content, the teacher will:

·      Instruct the concept.

·      Model an example.

·      Practice another example with the student.

·      Provide feedback in the form of positive praise and consideration.

·      Give constructive feedback.

·      Provide time between each step for processing.


Backward Chaining

Essentially, the teacher will complete all steps in a chained task except for the last:

  • Allow the student to complete the previous step independently or with the least restrictive prompt.
  • Continue until the student is independent with the last step.
  • Expand the student’s independence, starting with the previous two steps and so on, until he can complete all steps independently.


Forward Chaining

1. Think of forward chaining as the opposite of backward chaining; the teacher allows the student to complete the first step in a chained task independently or with the least restrictive prompt.

2. The teacher will complete or assist in the completion of the rest of the steps.


Video Modeling

1. Individuals will observe themselves performing a target behavior successfully on video.

2. The aim is to have the behavior imitated.

Example 1: Teacher records the student participating in waiting and ordering food in the lunch line. The targeted behavior is to join with peers in an educational setting.

Example 2: Teacher records the student interacting with a peer in a special education setting. The targeted behavior is to increase interactions with peers to promote social skills.


All of the antecedent interventions listed above are evidence-based practices that are proven to be effective with the prevention of maladaptive behaviors and skill acquisition for functional replacement behaviors.


As clinicians, we need to anticipate maladaptive behaviors in practice. This anticipation allows us to be steps ahead of our patients, focusing on the expected, desired behaviors needed for beneficial treatment and service outcomes. I hope you can use a tip or two from this series and apply them to your practice.


Thanks for reading,



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About the blogger

Danielle Kanouff, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA

Danielle has been working with children since 2009 when she began her career as a teacher. After moving to Nashville, TN, in 2011, she became a special education teacher.

She worked primarily with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity.

Her love for children with disabilities inspired her to earn her master’s degree in special education at Vanderbilt University in 2016. During this time, she also obtained her Behavior Analyst certification and licensure.

While she is no longer in the classroom, she continues to keep a full caseload working with children and young adults who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their families, and the children's medical, educational, and therapeutic team members.

Her goal at 3C is to share what she’s learned working in the field of education and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

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