SPED 8013 | Chapter 15: Punishment by Removal of a Stimulus

Definition of Negative Punishment

  • Stimulus removed
  • Following behavior
  • That results in a decrease in the future frequency of the behavior
  • The future decrease in the response is a critical feature in defining punishment

Punishment by Contingent Removal of a Stimulus

 Two Principal Ways – Time Out & Response Cost

Time-Out from Positive Reinforcement

  • The withdrawal of the opportunity to earn positive reinforcement, or
  • The loss of access to reinforcers for a specified period of time
  • Contingent upon the occurrence of a target behavior
  • If the effect of these is to decrease the future probability of the behavior, then this procedure has functioned as a punisher for the behavior

Important Aspects of Time-Out

  • There must be a discrepancy between “time-out” and “time-in” environments
  • The response-contingent loss of access to reinforcement
  • A resultant decrease in the future frequency of the behavior

Time-Out Procedures


  • In non-exclusion, the individual is not completely removed physically from the time-in setting
  • The individual’s position within the environment may shift, but he or she remain within the environment
  • Access to reinforcement is lost
  • Planned Ignoring
    • In planned ignoring, Social reinforcer–usually attention, physical contact, or verbal interaction–are removed for a brief period contingent on behavior
      • Systematically looking away from the student
      • Remaining quiet
      • Refraining from any interaction for a specified period of time
    • Planned ignoring is
      • Nonintrusive
      • Quick
      • Convenient
  • Withdrawal of a specific positive reinforcer
    • Some sort of positive reinforcer that is already present is removed for a brief period of time contingent upon a target behavior, and then reinstated
  • Contingent observation
    • The individual is repositioned within the existing setting
      • Observation of ongoing activities is still possible
      • Access to reinforcement is lost, however
      • “Sit and watch”
  • Time-out ribbon
    • A colored band is placed on the child’s wrist and is discriminative for receiving reinforcement
      • Child earn’s reinforcers when it is on
    • Contingent upon a target behavior, the colored band is removed for a specified period of time
      • All social interaction is terminated
      • Other reinforcers are also withheld


  • The individual is removed from the environment for a specified period of time
  • Contingent upon the occurrence of a target behavior
  • Time-out room
    • A confined space outside the individual’s normal education or treatment environment
    • It is devoid of any positive reinforcers and minimally furnished
    • It is safe (adequate heat and light), secure (but not locked) and temporary
    • Near time-in setting
    • Advantages of Time-Out Rooms
      • Opportunity to acquire reinforcement is eliminated or reduced substantially
      • After a few exposures, students learn to discriminate it from other rooms (it assumes conditioned aversive properties)
      • Decreases risk of student hurting other students
    • Disadvantage of Time-Out Rooms
      • May need to escort individuals to time-out
      • May result in resistance, emotional outbursts
      • Prohibits access to ongoing instruction
      • Individuals may engage in behaviors (e.g. self-injury) that should be stopped, but goes undetected (i.e. continue to monitor individuals while in time-out)
      • Negative public perception
  • Partition time-out
    • Individual remains in the time-in setting, but view within the setting is restricted by a partition, wall, or cubicle
    • Advantage: Keeps individual in instructional setting
    • Disadvantages: Individual may still be able to gain covert reinforcement, and negative public perception
  • Hallway time-out
    • Individual sits in hallway outside of classroom or treatment area
    • Not highly recommended strategy
      • Individual can obtain reinforcement from a multitude of sources
      • Individual can escape easily

Desirable Aspects of Time-Out

  • Ease of application (especially non-exclusion time-out)
  • Acceptability (especially non-exclusion time-out)
  • Rapid suppression of problem behavior
  • Easily combined with other procedures, such as differential reinforcement

Effective Use of Time Out

  • Reinforce and enrich the time-in environment
    • Utilize differential reinforcement to reinforce alternative and incompatible behaviors
  • Clearly define the behaviors leading to time-out
    • All parties (including the target individual) should have explicit, observable definitions of the problem behavior
  • Define procedures for the duration of time-out
    • Initial duration should be short
    • Longer than 15 minutes is ineffective
  • Define exit criteria
    • If person is misbehaving when time-out ends, it should be continues until inappropriate behavior ceases (changeover delay)
  • Decide on Exclusion vs. non-exclusion time-out
    • Consider institutional policies that may prevent exclusion time-out
    • Physical factors (i.e., lack of appropriate space) may prevent exclusion time out
  • Explain time-out rules to the individual
    • Target behaviors, duration, exit criteria
  • Obtain permission
    • Administrative approvals
    • Parental approvals
  • Apply consistently
  • Evaluate effectiveness
    • Target behavior should decrease
    • Track frequency and duration of time outs
    • Also track collateral behaviors for side effects
  • Consider other options
  • Consider legal and ethical issues

Response Cost

  • Loss of specific amount of reinforcement
  • Contingent upon a target behavior
  • Reduces the future probability of the target behavior
  • Examples: reclaiming awards, stickers, “fines” (e.g. loss of tokens, or money)

Desirable Aspects of Response Cost

  • Produces moderate to rapid decreases in the target behavior
  • Convenient and easy to implement (can be incorporated into existing token allowance programs)
  • Is easily combined with other approaches (such as differential reinforcement)

Methods of Response Cost

  • Fines
    • Directly fine a specific amount of the positive reinforcer
    • Consider legal and ethical appropriateness
      • e.g., denying access to food and free time may be unethical or undesirable
      • Obtain permission from human rights review committees
  • Bonus response cost
    • Make additional reinforcers available to the individual, specifically for removal during a response-cost contingency
    • This may relieve many of the legal and ethical dilemmas involved with response cost
      • E.g., providing a child with an extra 5 minutes of recess (being highly motivated for such a thing) and then removing one minute of that bonus recess at a time contingent upon problem behavior
  • Combining with Positive Reinforcement
    • Combine with point/token programs (differential reinforcement)
      • Advantages
        • If all points or tokens are not lost, they can be exchanged for back-up reinforcers
        • Reinforcers can be resupplied by performing appropriate behavior, thus reducing the legal and ethical concerns
  • Combining with Group Contingencies
    • Contingent upon any member of a group, the entire group loses a specified amount of reinforcement
      • Only gets 1 paragraph in Cooper
      • Scapegoating
      • There are other kinds of group contingencies

Effective Use of Response Cost

  • Specifically define the target behaviors that will result in response cost, as well as the fines
  • Establish rules for refusals to comply with the response-cost procedure, and explain these
  • Greater fines should be associated for more sever forms of problem behavior
    • Be cautious of making fines so great that the individual becomes “bankrupt”
  • Fines should be imposed immediately
  • Response cost vs. bonus response cost
    • Use least aversive initially (bonus response cost)
      • Increases acceptability
      • Decreases emotional outbursts
  • Ensure reinforcement reserve (decrease likelihood of “bankruptcy”)
  • Be prepared for unplanned or unexpected outcomes
    • Procedures can reinforce rather than punish undesirable behavior
    • Individuals can refuse to give up positive reinforcers
  • Avoid overuse
  • Keep records to evaluate effectiveness

Response Cost Considerations

  • Increased aggression may occur
    • Ignore emotional outbursts when possible
      • Either don’t use response cost if this is expected
      • Or be prepared to “ride out the storm”
  • Avoidance of the person who administers response cost or the setting may occur
    • These become conditioned aversive stimuli
    • Make sure positive reinforcement is available for appropriate behavior to reduce the likelihood of this outcome
  • Collateral reduction of desirable behaviors may occur
    • Response cost may unintentionally suppress desirable behaviors as well as the target behaviors
  • Response cost calls attention to inappropriate behaviors
  • Be prepared for unpredictability