Question: I am a newly-minted BCBA, working in a public school. I really love my job and the students with whom I work. A concern I have is how to help parents and others understand what it is that I do, especially as it relates to some of the more fundamental principles that underlie our work, such as reinforcement and punishment. How can I best explain some of the basics of applied behavior analysis (ABA) to others?

Answered by Patrick O’Leary, MA, BCBA

This is a great question, and something with which the field of behavior analysis has historically struggled (Bailey, 1991).

Consumers can indeed be intimidated by our use of terminology. We have a powerful science in our hands, and we need to make it approachable and understandable to those with whom we work. The principles of ABA are evident in how the environment – including the social setting – impacts our behaviors. Parents and colleagues may hold the false belief that these principles only apply to their classroom instruction. They may not appreciate that these same principles of behavior are at play, regardless of the individual, the setting, or the behavior of interest. Let’s take a brief look at some well-known, though often misunderstood, principles of behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

A hallmark of ABA, positive reinforcement is a principle of behavior stating: “a behavior occurs and is followed by the introduction of something to the environment, which subsequently increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). A typical example in teaching situations involves the delivery of praise (e.g., “Great job saying blue!”) following a student correctly labeling a blue ball. Assuming social praise is positively reinforcing, correct responding will likely increase in the future.

But when we look at the definition, we see that this doesn’t necessarily only relate to classroom instruction. Take for example, a 30-something-year-old male who is hungry for breakfast. He walks into the kitchen and opens a cabinet that contains a variety of cereals. The next morning, he finds himself hungry again and wanting cereal. He opens the same cabinet and is rewarded with cereal. What has happened? We see the same behavior in both scenarios, opening the cabinet. Opening the cabinet changes the environment in a way that cereal is introduced. We see in the second part of the scenario that “opening the cabinet” was reinforced – the behavior occurred more often in the future as a result of the positive reinforcement, the introduction of cereal.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is often considered synonymous with punishment; however, like positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement also increases the frequency with which a behavior occurs (Iwata, 1987). The difference can be subtle, but it is quite important. Negative reinforcement is also unique in that there are two aspects: escape and avoidance. In the typical negative reinforcement example, an unpleasant situation is present. A behavior occurs and the unpleasant situation is removed. The behavior is likely to occur again in the future. It was reinforced by the removal of the unpleasant situation. We refer to this as “escape” because the unpleasant situation is removed as a consequence of the behavior. Contrast this with “avoidance.” If we use the same example, the behavior occurs prior to the unpleasant situation occurring. Thus, the behavior results in an avoidance of the unpleasant situation altogether.

In a typical teaching example, a student with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is assigned a work to complete at her desk. The worksheet is difficult for the student, and she doesn’t wish to continue work. Self-injury occurs, after which the teacher removes the task and presents a break. Self-injury is thus reinforced by the removal of the unpleasant task. In the future, self-injury may re-occur during similar, unpleasant tasks. The task is presented, self-injury occurs, and the task is removed.

Now, take the following example as an instance of avoidance responding. In this example, the teacher enters the classroom while carrying a box of teaching materials. As the teacher approaches the student, the student begins to engage in self injury. The teacher hasn’t even begun teaching yet! Following the start of this self-injury, the teacher pivots away and directs her attention to another student. What happened? The teacher’s presence (paired with the box of materials) signaled to the student that work was about to begin. The student engages in self-injury, to which the teacher removes the opportunity to do work. The student has avoided work. The unpleasant situation (work) is avoided following an instance of self-injury. Assuming self-injury increases in the future in similar scenarios, we see negative reinforcement (in the form of avoidance responding) at work.

Again, these principles are in play throughout our daily lives. For example, I recently purchased a new car. In the past, I rarely wore a seatbelt. This new car took care of that. Not only is there a red seatbelt icon on the dashboard, but a repetitive, loud beeping noise that occurs until the seatbelt is put on. Oh, it was so unpleasant! To escape from this unpleasant situation, over several days, I found that I put my seatbelt on shortly after starting my car, in order to “escape” the incessant beeping. Shortly after that, I began putting on the seatbelt prior to starting the car, in order to avoid the beeping in the first place.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is described as an introduction of something into the environment (think positive = addition = introduction), following a behavior, which is followed by a future decrease in how often that behavior occurs (Cooper et al., 2007). An example, used in most schools, is a reprimand. “Don’t do that!” or “Stop talking!” It is easy to imagine the behaviors that are occurring prior to these statements: a classmate pulling another’s hair, high school students texting during a lecture, etc. The reprimand, following the behavior, often immediately stops the behavior. In the future, the behaviors are less likely to occur because they have been followed by the reprimand (assuming the reprimand functions as a punisher).

Again, we can see this principle play out in our day-to-day activities as well. For example, a young woman is hiking in the woods. Though repeatedly told by her husband to stop shuffling her feet when she walks, she continues to ignore his request (a failed attempt at positive punishment). The environment will take care of that! While hiking on a rocky trail, she painfully stubs her toe. Pain was introduced after the behavior of “feet shuffling.” In the future, she no longer shuffles her feet. The introduction of pain reduced how frequently she shuffled her feet in the future.

Negative Punishment

In negative punishment (think negative = subtract = removal), a behavior occurs and is followed by the removal of a pleasant situation (Cooper et al., 2007). As a result, the behavior occurs less often in the future. A common example can be found in the use of time-out. In time-out, a behavior occurs and the student is removed from an enjoyable activity. For example, a student playing a soccer game swears at a peer. As a consequence, the teacher removes the student from the game and he sits on the bench for a period of time to watch. In this instance, time-out has the desired effect in that the student swears less often in the future.

A great example of this concept in daily life is the use of fines, particularly for breaking the law while driving. An individual is driving a car at 75 mph, where the speed limit is 55 mph. A police officer pulls the individual over, and provides a $75 ticket. The individual loses a portion of a pleasant stimulus (money) following a behavior (speeding). The individual is thus less likely to speed in the future.


This one is easy, right? We just have to mention dinosaurs, and it’ll clear everything up. Just kidding! Extinction ties in with the principle of reinforcement. The phenomenon of extinction occurs when reinforcement of a behavior is withheld and, as a result, the rate of the behavior decreases (Lerman & Iwata, 1996). Let’s look at our typical teaching scenario. A student in our classroom has learned that talking out in class will result in teacher attention. The student talks out during a lecture (imagine a “class clown”) and the teacher provides a light-hearted reprimand. Talking out is thus reinforced. Our teacher, after learning of the principle of extinction, decides to withhold her attention the next time the student talks out. Notice that she did not remove her attention; that would indicate that she was giving him attention in the moment and then stopped. She withheld her attention; she ignored his talking out.

Before moving on to our daily life example, it is important to touch on another aspect of extinction: the “extinction burst.” An extinction burst is basically an increase in some aspect of the behavior, which occurs soon after the behavior undergoes extinction (Lerman & Iwata, 1996). Basically, the student has learned that the behavior no longer works, and they “up the ante.” Let’s go back to our class clown. He has learned that, in the past, talking out results in teacher attention. But this time it didn’t. What does the student do? Likely, some aspect of the behavior will increase. In our example, the student may talk louder, wave his hands in addition to talking, jump on his desk, or throw a pencil at the teacher. If the teacher attends to any one of these behaviors, we see that the new behavior is thus reinforced; the next time the student is looking for teacher attention, he may simply try this new behavior, since he learned that it is more successful. It’s easy to see how this can escalate quickly to inappropriate classroom behaviors.

A daily life example that explains this phenomenon well is when an individual is trying to get elevator doors to close. In the past, there is a history of reinforcement for pressing the “door close” button; the button is pressed, and the door is closed. Now, suppose the “door close” button is broken, or on the verge of breaking. A simple press no longer is successful; reinforcement is withheld. Pressing the button once no longer leads to the door closing. Here comes the extinction burst! Now, because pressing the button once doesn’t work, the individual rapidly, and forcefully presses the button 3, 4, or 5 times. On the 5th time, it works! Pressing the button once was not successful, the “ante was upped”, and the door closed only after the 5th forceful push. In the future, in similar elevator circumstances, the individual is more likely to press the button more than once, and forcefully.

Motivating Operations

In behavior analysis, motivation is an essential component that is often overlooked. The common definition of motivating operations includes two operations and two effects: the establishing/ abolishing operation and the evocative/abative effect (Cooper, et al., 2007). In terms of the establishing/abolishing operation, we are talking about an increase/decrease, respectively, in the effectiveness of some stimulus as a reinforcer. In terms of the evocative/abative effect, we are talking about the increase/decrease, respectively, in the class of responses that has resulted in the aforementioned reinforcer. What does this mean?

We can analyze this in a simple, hypothetical scenario. Let’s use sleep as our example. Last night, I slept a total of 2 hours. We can say that I am “sleep deprived.” This state of deprivation has done something interesting. It has established sleep as an effective reinforcer. It’s very easy to think of a night that you did not get much sleep. The stimulus that may be most reinforcing the next morning is an opportunity to sleep. Now that sleep has been established as a powerful reinforcer, what will I do about it? We will see an evocative effect, in that I am now likely to engage in behavior that has led to sleep in the past (e.g., staying in bed, taking a nap as soon as it’s available, etc.). Note that these behaviors may or may not be socially appropriate.

Let’s now turn to our second operation/effect: abolishing and abative. Let’s use food as our example. I’ve just had a wonderful dinner. Steak, potatoes, Brussel’s sprouts, bread, wine, and so on. I am stuffed! This feeling of being “full” has an interesting effect on food. Because I’ve just eaten all this food, the effectiveness of food as a reinforcer has been abolished. How likely is it that I will accept food at this point? We will also see an abative effect, in that the likelihood that I will engage in “food-seeking” behavior is reduced. For example, I am unlikely to drive to McDonald’s, make a sandwich, or order chicken Alfredo from my local delivery restaurant.

Why Should We Care?

As a newly minted BCBA, problems such as these should prompt a look at our ethical guidelines. Let’s do just that. While a full review of the guidelines is beyond the scope of this Clinical Corner, we can pull out some important specifics that will help. Several of the guidelines discuss the importance of talking to consumers in language that is easily understandable (Behavior Analyst Certification Board Guidelines for Responsible Conduct 1.04a; 1.05b; 1.05d; 2.04b; 3.03). That’s great! But why does the BACB see this as an important part of our job? It can all go back to what behavior analysis fundamentally is: a science.

Applied behavior analysis has 7 dimensions, outlined by Baer, Wolf, and Risley in 1968. These dimensions outline what ABA is and does. However, there are some additional characteristics that are overlooked and yet of great importance. ABA should be public and doable (Cooper et al., 2007). What do these mean? When we say that behavior analysis is public, it essentially means that our methods are out there for the public to analyze. We don’t sit in dark offices, manipulating the world to do what we want. Our methods are out there for the general public to see, analyze, and understand. Think about physics. The principles of physics are always acting on us. Though we may not fully understand all the details (physicists spend immense time learning those details, as do BCBAs for behavior analysis), the basic concepts are available for the general public to learn and understand. This takes some of the mystique of the science away. While sciences have made their mistakes in the past, they are ultimately available for the public to observe, analyze, and understand.

This feeds into our next concept: doable. We saw that physicists spend long hours learning the specifics and details of their science. BCBAs and BCaBAs do the same for behavior analysis. But this doesn’t mean that the methods are mystical, beyond the understanding of any others. In fact, this Clinical Corner shows just the opposite! Of course, to fully understand and ethically engage in behavior analytic science, the proper training is required. However, the general principles are readily available for anyone to learn about. To fully “do” ABA requires extensive training and precise implementation, but an appreciation of key ABA principles is available to virtually everyone.


Since behavior analysis is the most widely accepted and scientifically-based treatment for individuals with ASD, it is important that consumers know what they are getting. The only way to truly garner informed consent for the work that is done is to inform. The best way to inform is to explain, in simple and non-technical terms, just what is actually being done. Think of a time that you spoke with someone who worked in a field that was completely alien to you. Listening to that person talk about their job may be interesting, but you likely will stop attending once you don’t understand what’s being said. We have a responsibility to disseminate behavior analysis to the general public and to the parents with whom we work. We should teach parents that the concepts we are using in therapy are actually occurring all around us. This will help show consumers that we are not trying to hide anything, or use some fancy procedure that no one understands. While it takes highly competent and trained individuals to ethically and appropriately apply these techniques in therapy, it can help show consumers that we have nothing to hide.


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1,(1), 95-97.

Bailey, J. S. (1991). Marketing behavior analysis requires different talk. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24(3), 445-448.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. K. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Iwata, B. A. (1987). Negative reinforcement in applied behavior analysis: An emerging technology. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 20(4), 361-378.

Lerman, D. C., & Iwata, B. A. (1996). Developing a technology for the use of operant extinction in clinical settings: An examination of basic and applied research. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29(3), 345-385.

Citation for this article:

O’Leary, P. (2015). Clinical Corner: Explaining Applied Behavior Analysis to parents and colleagues. Science in Autism Treatment, 12(2), 18-23.

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