4 Terms for Translating Behavioral Jargon

Blain Hockridge
Autism Case Supervisor

As a graduate student in behavior analysis, one of the most frequent topics brought up at the conferences I've attended is how to translate behavioral jargon to a non-behavior analytic listener. This could include parents, caregivers, teachers, principals, counselors, etc. The reason why this can be difficult, and thus such an interesting topic, is that there are two opposing forces at work.

On the one hand, you want to speak the language of the person you are talking to. If they have no experience with terms like positive reinforcement, shaping, or functional analysis, it would be foolish to use those terms in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting as if they do understand them. They may have a general idea about what those words mean, but in a short IEP meeting that could be the last meaningful communication to occur between some members of the child's special education team for months (worst case scenario), it is vitally important that everyone is on the same page. Additionally, using overly jargon-y language could be interpreted as condescending by some members of the team, which could even further close the lines of communication.


On the other hand, meaning can get lost when using layman's terms to describe specific behavioral phenomenon. Many behavioral theories, and the terms used to describe them, were developed and refined over many years by experts in the field. Using words that are similar to the precisely defined term, but not exactly the same, could result in misunderstandings that lead to mistakes in the implementation of the recommended protocol.

Here are four terms from behavior analysis that could lead to some confusion, and some ways to explain them that conveys the proper meaning:

1) Positive Reinforcement

Using the term "reward" to replace "positive reinforcement" can get the majority of the intended meaning across to a non-behavior analytic listener. However, positive reinforcement describes something very specific, namely the addition of a consequence that makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future. We actually do not know if a reward is functioning as positive reinforcement until the behavior starts to occur more frequently. Many times, people assume that providing a toy or candy following a desirable behavior will make the child more likely to engage in this behavior again. This may not be the case, though. If the child does not like the toys or candy provided, then providing these things will not likely serve as positive reinforcement. This distinction could end up being important if a teacher or parent provides a "reward" and gets discouraged when the child doesn't respond as they were hoping they would.

The key when explaining this concept to someone unfamiliar with the language is to emphasize that preferences matter. A student must be receiving a preferred item for there to be a chance that the behavior is being positively reinforced. This means the teacher or parent should frequently ask what the student would like to receive for engaging in positive behavior and frequently track whether or not the behavior occurs more frequently. Something as simple as praise could work as an effective "reward" if it is preferred by the student. Overall, the focus should be put on the student and what they prefer to receive at that moment in time. The specific object or attention being provided should not be the focus. That will lead to the best chance that beneficial behaviors will be positively reinforced.

2) Negative Reinforcement

"Negative reinforcement" can often be confused for "punishment" by people without a background in behavior analysis. The term actually means the removal of a consequence that makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Punishment means that a behavior is less likely to occur in the future. Since the two terms can be easily confused for each other, the key to remembering the difference is that we want to focus on the behaviors we want to see more of. For instance, if recess privileges are revoked for a student for being physically aggressive toward another student, the teacher is attempting to punish the physical aggression, while attempting to negatively reinforce the student dealing with their anger in a more constructive way. One of the reasons why punishment is less effective than positive reinforcement in changing behavior is that it doesn't tell the student what you want to see them do, only what you do not want to see them do. For this reason, a better tactic is almost always to try to positively reinforce the more beneficial behavior. It may be simpler to stick to the terms "positive reinforcement" and "punishment" to avoid any possible confusion that could occur with "negative reinforcement."

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3) Function

The term "function" could be the most-used term by behavior analysts. The "function" of a person's behavior is simply the reason they are doing what they are doing. This could be to access toys or food, to gain access to a person's attention, to escape an activity, or simply because they enjoy it automatically (such as stimming). While there may be multiple "functions" operating at once, one of the "functions" will usually be pretty apparent. The term "function" can usually be replaced by the term "motivated by" without much meaning being lost. Such as, the student is usually "motivated by" getting the attention of his/her peers. If the function of the behavior is automatic, though, this wording could become confusing. That would be a case where a little extra explanation could be worth it. Often a child with autism will engage in "stimming," such as hand flapping or clapping. These behaviors are reinforcing to the child automatically, and are not an attempt to access or escape anything. Explaining this to the parent or teacher could be helpful.

4) Extinction

"Extinction," like many other terms in behavior analysis, has a meaning that's different in this context than the one most people are familiar with. Most people are going to think of condors or Indian jungle elephants when they hear "extinction." In the field of behavior analysis, though, it refers to a behavior that no longer occurs because reinforcement is no longer provided. For instance, you could put a student's class interruptions maintained by the teacher's attention on "extinction" by having the teacher no longer acknowledge the noise. Hopefully, then, the teacher can help the student learn to access attention in appropriate ways (such as raising their hand) to replace the interruptions. The behavior is put on "extinction" if removing the attention results in the behavior not occurring anymore. In this case, the student is getting what they want when the teacher addresses them in front of the whole class following an interruption. Not providing them what they want when engaging in inappropriate behavior could be a good way to explain to a parent or teacher how to put a behavior on "extinction."

Blain Hockridge



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