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The Impact of Consequences

May 28, 2021

Most people consider consequences to be negative things that happen in response to a maladaptive behaviour. In reality, a consequence is anything that follows behaviour. Consequences can be undesirable as is the case when not earning a sticker, losing your wallet, being hungry, loss of a privilege etc.  However, these consequences can also be desired as is the case with reinforcers such as stickers, verbal praise, removing a shirt that has an itchy tag, getting someone’s attention etc. Consequences are determined to be reinforcing if the preceding behaviour increases and punishing if the preceding behaviour decreases, and nothing can ever be considered as a universal punishment or reinforcer.

Time out is considered by most people to be a punishment however; this is not always the case. Let’s look at the case of Cynthia as an example:

Cynthia engages in aggression towards her peers and her educational assistant during math class. In response to this aggression the educational assistant places her in a time out. The next day Cynthia hits her peers during science class and during gym class. Both times she is placed in a time out. The third day Cynthia hits her educational assistant during lunch time and again the educational assistant places her in a time out. In the case of Cynthia, it looks like aggression has increased since the time out procedure was implemented. This means, time out is reinforcing to Cynthia. How does this make sense? Well, it is possible that Cynthia does not want to be in the environment that she is in, or does not want the demands that are placed on her and she is aware that by aggressing towards someone she will have the demands removed. Without realizing this, you are running the risk of reinforcing behaviours that you actually want to decrease.

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