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Managing Behavior – Consequences – Part I




In our previous post, we discussed the ABC’s of behavior management, with more focus on the A’s, Antecedents, and B’s, Behaviors. Let’s now turn to the ever confusing C’s, Consequences.

First, what is a consequence? When we hear the word consequence, we almost always think of something bad – when we work with parents, we often find ourselves having to re-define the word. Consequences simply put, are what happen following behaviors in our ABC model. They can be good or bad or somewhere in between, but they must follow a behavior. The confusion becomes even more pronounced when we start adding in other complicating words like reinforcement and punishment. When we throw words, such as positive and negative into them mix, it becomes even more confusing. Let’s try to tease these apart a bit and begin with the consequence of reinforcement.


Reinforcement is a consequence that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. Simple as that. It’s important to note that reinforcement doesn’t guarantee that the behavior will occur again, but that there’s a good chance that the behavior will occur again. Also, it’s important to know that what is reinforcing is often different for different individuals…there are some general tendencies, but it still comes down to each individual.

There are two types of reinforcement, and the terminology used is often very confusing for parents (it’s often very confusing for some professionals too). There is positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and since this piece is being written with parents in mind, I’m going to use a little latitude and change these terms to be more descriptive.

Let’s consider positive reinforcement as additive, and negative reinforcement as subtractive. Notice that positive does not mean good and negative does not mean bad; these are very common misconceptions. So, what do I mean by those terms?

–Positive (Additive) Reinforcement

When we add something following the occurrence of a behavior, it is called positive, so this is why I’m using the term additive. If my child picks up his or her dirty clothes, and I say “thank you for picking up your dirty clothes”, I have added something following the occurrence of the behavior. In this instance, this is verbal praise, and, in general, verbal praise is reinforcing for many kids (but not all). By adding the verbal praise following the behavior, I’m increasing the likelihood that the behavior of picking up the dirty clothes will occur again. The reinforcement must also occur very soon after the desired behavior for it to be effective; immediately if possible.

As another example, your child brushes her teeth, and when she finishes, you give her a sticker for her to put on a sticker chart. We know, ahead of time, that our child likes stickers. We’re adding something, in this case, stickers, following the brushing teeth behavior to increase the chance that she will brush her teeth again. Our ultimate goal here may be for her to brush her teeth twice a day without reminders, and we are using positive reinforcement to help her reach that goal.

Reinforcement is also a factor with adult behaviors, but for simplicity, we’ll just deal with parents and kids for now.

I’ll reiterate from earlier, the use of reinforcement, does not guarantee that the behavior will occur again, but there’s a better chance that it will.

–Negative (Subtractive) Reinforcement

When we remove or subtract something following a behavior, it is called negative, and this is why I’m using the term subtractive. Negative reinforcement therefore is subtracting something to increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. One of the most common and easily understood examples of negative reinforcement occurs with seatbelt use. When we buckle our seatbelt, that annoying ringing or tone that we hear in our cars stops. The behavior of buckling the seatbelt increases by taking away the annoying sound. We buckle, and the sound is removed.

Another very common example has to do with nagging. Our children will empty the dishwasher to remove the nagging that is occurring (nagging is also annoying just like the tone in the car). Nagging increases the likelihood that the behavior of emptying the dishwasher will occur. The child empties the dishwasher, the nagging is removed. This is negative (subtractive) reinforcement; removing something to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. However, it should also be noted here that there are side effects with the use of nagging–it sets up a separate behavioral cycle in the parents that is not good for communication in general, and we encourage parents to avoid the use of nagging.

There are two other topics that often come up here that I’ll discuss in later posts; expectations (what we, as parents, expect our kids to do, should do, or be able to do), and then there’s bribery. Those two topics require more explanation. In reference to expectations, we are not talking about expectations as goals. These types of expectations can be problematic. On the other hand, bribery is just misunderstood as it relates to reinforcement…they are not the same thing.

Next up, however, is punishment…

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