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Learning Module: Side Effects of Punishment

Side Effects of Punishment

  • Mutual escalation (or) everybody gets more & more angry.

  • Greatly reduces time spent teaching  & program implementation.

  • Increased aggression by the child towards ‘safe’ targets.

  • ‘Countercontrol’… or punishing the Punisher.

  • Artificial control maintained mostly in the presence of the primary punishing agent/person &/or conditions.

  • Reduced flexibility, increased avoidance & ‘punishment shaped’ behaviors by both students & teachers/therapists.

    • Identify examples from your experience of ‘punishment shaped’ behavior?  ______________________________________________________________________________________________________

  • Imitation (transfer) of adult response to peers & other adults.

  • Does Not Teach…more likely teaches unintended lessons!



Ed is a middle school teacher. During a lecture, one of his students, Jack, throws a pencil. Ed states, "Jack, that it is unacceptable." Later in the day, Jack throws a pencil again. Ed responds by saying, "Jack, we've spoken about this. Stop" The next day, Jack again throws his pencil during a lecture. What’s going on? The teacher has been providing Jack with _______________ for throwing the pencil.

  1. Positive reinforcement

  2. Negative reinforcement

  3. Negative punishment     (Type _____)

  4. Positive punishment       (Type _____)


Be sure to read this question carefully. Is the question about the teacher or his student, Jack? Think about what's going on in this scenario. What is the best answer for this question? What would be the best answer if the question, instead, read ‘Ed thinks he is providing Jack with _______________?’

The BCBA exam may identify negative or positive punishment or just by the 'Type.' This is why you need to know both sets of terms to be able to answer correctly regardless of how the question is asked. So....which is which? Do you know? 

If you were a BCBA working with Jack, what feedback would you give his teacher…and how would you offer that feedback in order to increase the probability Ed will ‘buy in?’

Identify which of the following has not been established as a potential side effect of the use of punishment

  1. Increased likelihood of aggression against safe targets

  2. Increased likelihood escalation

  3. Increased likelihood of social withdrawal.

  4. A more limited response range particularly in the presence of the punishing agent


Be sure to read the wording in the question. The phrase 'which....not been established….’ Is key.

The side effects of both punishment and reinforcement are often not well understood or recognized. Knowledge of this important area of application is also identified on the Task List; Section 'C.' Learn them then identify examples from your experience of ‘punishment shaped’ behavior in children with whom you've worked. Then, considering the Task List - specifically - Sections D, E, and F., how might you respond towards correcting these side effects?   



This represents how I work with folks as part of my online BCBA Test Prep sessions.

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