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Reinforcement Vs. Punishment for Kids — With Examples

Learn the difference between reinforcement and punishment and which works best for kids.

Understanding the difference between reinforcement and punishment is crucial in effective parenting and teaching strategies.

Both methods can shape a child’s behavior, but they work differently and have different long-term effects.

This article discusses the principles of reinforcement and punishment, helping parents and educators choose the most beneficial approach for child development.

Key Takeaways

  • Reinforcement encourages a behavior, while punishment discourages a behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement adds something pleasant, and negative reinforcement removes something unpleasant to promote a desired behavior.
  • Positive punishment introduces something unpleasant, and negative punishment removes something pleasant to deter an undesired behavior.
  • A combination of reinforcement and punishment is most effective in shaping a child’s behavior.

What Is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is the practice of encouraging a particular behavior through the use of encouragement, a response, or a deterrent.

Reinforcement takes two forms — positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

However, remember that the terms negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement are psychological terms. That means they do not have the same meaning as you might expect. In this instance, the positive and negative do not refer to the quality of the response you use for reinforcement (1).

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

When we add something to a situation to encourage a child’s behavior, this is positive reinforcement. Telling a child “Well done” is a form of positive reinforcement, but so is telling your child, “That was an awful thing to do.”

This is because you are adding something to the situation. It is not the quality of the response that is referred to as positive. Positive reinforcement doesn’t mean your child will see your response as a good thing or an encouragement.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement for Kids

Example Pleasant Stimulus Desired Behavior
You praise your child after they have put their toys away. Praise. Clearing up the toys.
Your child receives ice cream after finishing their vegetables at dinnertime. Ice Cream. Finishing up all of the vegetables.
When potty training, your child receives a gold star for using the potty. Gold Star. Using the potty.

What Is Negative Reinforcement?

As with the positive, the “negative” in negative reinforcement does not refer to the quality of the reinforcement itself. Instead, negative reinforcement refers to removing something from the situation to encourage and reinforce a particular behavior (2).

So, removing a child’s crayons because they drew on the wall is negative reinforcement.

However, it is also negative reinforcement when a parent stops nagging their child to clean their room. In this case, the knowledge that their parent will stop nagging (the nagging will be removed) if they clean the room motivates the child to tidy up.

This is negative reinforcement.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement for Kids

So, using the same examples as before, negative reinforcement is:

Example Aversive Stimulus Desired Behavior
Your child cleans their room to stop you from nagging them to do it. Your nagging. To have your child clear up the room.
Your child can get up from the dinner table after eating their vegetables. Sitting at the dinner table to eat vegetables. That your child will eat all of their vegetables at dinnertime.
Your child does not have to sit on the potty if they go to the toilet. Sitting on the potty. You want your child to use the potty.

Positive Vs. Negative Reinforcement for Kids

To recap, we use reinforcement to encourage a particular behavior. When we use positive reinforcement, we add something to the situation to encourage a behavior.

When we use negative reinforcement, we remove something from the situation to encourage a behavior.

Positive Reinforcement Negative Reinforcement
Example Praising your child for cleaning up their toys. To stop nagging your child to put their toys away.
Stimulus Praise. Nagging.
Behavior Your child clears their toys away. Your child clears their toys away.
Result A tidy room and a child who is motivated to clean again because they know that clearing their toys away will earn them praise. A tidy room and a child who is motivated to tidy again because they know that by clearing their toys, they do not have to listen to nagging.

What Is Punishment?

Punishment is the creation of some form of suffering, unpleasant feeling, or undesirable situation in order to discourage someone from a particular behavior.

The suffering, feeling, or situation does not have to be major. Taking away a child’s spoon to prevent them from flicking food is a punishment.

What Is Positive Punishment?

Positive punishment occurs when you introduce an adverse stimulus to discourage an unwanted behavior (3).

Just as with reinforcement, it is not the quality of the thing you add to the situation that we talk about when using the word “positive.” Instead, a positive punishment is one where something unpleasant is added to the situation to obtain the desired response.

Examples of Positive Punishment for Kids

Example Aversive Stimulus Added Undesired Behavior
A child eats a crayon and gets a bad taste in their mouth. A bad taste in the mouth. Eating crayons.
One child hits another and is shouted at by their parents. Being shouted at by a parent. Hitting another child.
A child refuses to clear away their toys and is spanked. Being spanked. Refusing to clear away their toys.

What Is Negative Punishment?

Negative punishment is taking something away from a situation to obtain the desired behavior.

Examples Of Negative Punishment For Kids

Example Pleasant Stimulus Removed Undesired Behavior
A child chews on their crayons, and their parent takes the crayons away. Drawing with the crayons. Eating the crayons.
One child hits another and is sent to sit alone in the corner. Playing with the other children. Hitting another child.
A child refuses to clear away their toys and has their favorite toy taken away. Favorite toy is taken away. Refusing to tidy their room.

Positive Vs. Negative Punishment for Kids

When you apply punishment to a situation, your child learns to avoid the behavior that causes the punishment. Both positive and negative punishment do this.

However, positive punishment introduces something your child does not like to the situation. Negative punishment removes something your child does like from the situation.

Positive Punishment Negative Punishment
Example Spanking a child for not cleaning their room. Taking away a favorite toy for not cleaning their room.
Stimulus Spanking. Removing a favorite toy.
Behavior Not cleaning. Not cleaning.
Result The child is motivated to clean their room in the future to avoid receiving another spanking. The child is motivated to clean their room in the future to avoid losing their favorite toy.
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Reinforcement Vs. Punishment

Reinforcement is used to encourage a behavior, while punishment is used to discourage a behavior.

If you use only reinforcement or only punishment to shape your child’s behavior, either technique will become less effective over time. Instead, psychologists have found that a combination of reinforcement and punishment is the most effective in changing behaviors (4).

Method Add / Remove Stimulus Behavior
Positive Reinforcement Add Pleasant Enhance desired
Negative Reinforcement Remove Aversive Enhance desired
Positive Punishment Add Adverse Deter undesired
Negative Punishment Remove Pleasant Deter undesired

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About the Author

Patricia Barnes

Patricia Barnes is a homeschooling mom of 5 who has been featured on Global TV, quoted in Parents magazine, and writes for a variety of websites and publications. Doing her best to keep it together in a life of constant chaos, Patti would describe herself as an eclectic mess maker, lousy crafter, book lover, autism mom, and insomniac.