Ethics Part Four: Considerations On Punishment

Punishment procedures are, with reason, very controversial. Today, I’d like to clear up a few concerns and issues about punishment procedures, especially in regards to the ethical obligations of behavior analysts.

First, it’s important to define the terms we’re discussing. In behavior analysis, when we refer to punishment, we mean any response to a behavior that decreases the future likelihood of that behavior. This means that we won’t categorize a particular intervention as punishment unless we have actual proof that it decreases the behavior. When I was a classroom teacher, I had a student who at the beginning of math class would break his pencil and begin cursing. My immediate response to this behavior was to send him out of the room. But this wasn’t actually punishment because it did not decrease the behavior. Instead, his ability to escape the math class actually maintained the pencil-breaking and cursing behavior. If I wanted to punish, or decrease, that behavior, then I needed to change my response.

Often, when we’re talking about interventions, we lump several responses into the punishment category (such as time out, verbal reprimands, or detention) without any evidence that they are actually decreasing the target behavior. So the question becomes, what is an aversive stimulus for the individual you’re working with?

While this distinction is important in order to create effective interventions, it is also important to reference the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. Item 4.08 details the responsibilities of behavior analysts in regards to punishment. First, it states “behavior analysts recommend reinforcement rather than punishment whenever possible.” If behavior analysts have exhausted all possibilities and must use a punishment procedure, access to reinforcement must be a part of the intervention. This can be as part of reinforcing replacement behaviors that should be taught and reinforced in lieu of any problematic behavior.

Another important aspect of our ethical code is that when punishment procedures are being utilized, there is an increase in training, supervision, and oversight. A BCBA should not come in, explain a punishment procedure, and then not show up again for three months while teachers or practitioners are implementing the punishment procedure. Instead, there should be ongoing support and supervision and a plan to discontinue aversive procedures when they are no longer needed.

Ultimately, behavior analysts should be focused on reinforcement procedures. But when it becomes necessary to use aversive procedures to address dangerous behaviors, behavior analysts are required to be aware of and follow this compliance code.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.