Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement in Speech Therapy: Case Studies, Examples and Best Practices for Speech Therapists

Explore the types of reinforcers and examples used in speech-language therapy.

Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement in Speech Therapy: Case Studies, Examples and Best Practices for Speech Therapists

Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement in Speech Therapy: Case Studies, Examples and Best Practices for Speech Therapists


In the realm of speech and language therapy and reinforcement, the fundamental purpose of intervention is centered on modifying behavior - specifically, to increase desired communication behaviors and decrease unwanted ones. This objective is rooted in the principles of behavior modification, a concept grounded in operant conditioning theory proposed by B.F. Skinner in 1957. At its core, behavior modification involves understanding the relationship between a stimulus, a response, and a consequent event. These elements form the foundation for implementing various types of reinforcement in speech therapy, a practice crucial for fostering effective communication skills.

Understanding the Types of Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves presenting a rewarding event or condition contingent on the performance of a desired behavior. In the context of speech therapy, positive reinforcement examples include verbal praise, tangible rewards, or social acknowledgments that encourage the recurrence of the target behavior.

Primary Reinforcers

Primary reinforcers, such as food, are innately rewarding due to the biological makeup of the individual. They are potent tools for establishing new communicative behaviors, particularly in low-functioning clients. However, challenges such as immediate presentation, susceptibility to satiation, and difficulty in generalization beyond therapy settings can limit their effectiveness.

Secondary Reinforcers

Secondary reinforcers are learned rewards, including social reinforcements such as smiles or verbal praise, token systems like stickers or points, and performance feedback. These are more common in speech-language therapy due to their ease of administration, resistance to satiation, and occurrence in natural settings.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves removing an unpleasant event or condition contingent on the performance of a desired behavior. It's less common in treating communication disorders due to its potential to expose clients to aversive situations. However, when used appropriately, it can increase the frequency of desired responses and improve motivation and clinician-client relationships.

Escape and Avoidance

Escape reinforcement occurs when the performance of the target behavior relieves or terminates an aversive condition. In contrast, avoidance reinforcement prevents the occurrence of an anticipated aversive condition, thereby increasing the likelihood of the desired response.

Can Punishment Be a Reinforcement? 

While reinforcement aims to increase desirable behavior, punishment is designed to decrease the frequency of undesirable behavior. However, punishment must be used with caution due to potential negative effects like client anger, aggression, and treatment avoidance.

Types of Punishment

  • Type I involves presenting an aversive consequence after an unwanted behavior, such as verbal reprimands or white noise bursts.
  • Type II involves the withdrawal of a pleasant condition, like time-out procedures or response-cost contingencies, where positive reinforcers are deducted for undesirable behaviors.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Determining how often to deliver reinforcement is critical. The two main schedules are continuous and intermittent.

Continuous Reinforcement

This involves presenting a reinforcer after every correct response. While effective in establishing new behaviors, it can lead to rapid extinction if overused.

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement involves delivering reinforcement only some of the time. It's effective in maintaining and generalizing established behaviors. The four types include fixed ratio, fixed interval, variable ratio, and variable interval schedules, each with unique characteristics influencing response rates and behaviors' resistance to extinction.

Applying Reinforcement Strategies to Speech Therapy: Case Study Analysis

In speech therapy, the application of reinforcement strategies, particularly positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement plays a critical role in shaping desired communication behaviors. This analysis will delve into specific case studies, examining how these reinforcement methods have been successfully implemented and their impact on therapy outcomes.

Examples of Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement in Speech Therapy

Primary Reinforcers Case Study

In a case involving a low-functioning child with a speech delay, primary reinforcers like favorite foods were used. These reinforcers, given immediately after the child attempted to articulate words, were shown to be effective in establishing new communicative behaviors. However, the therapy faced challenges such as the child's satiation and the difficulty of integrating these reinforcers into natural settings outside therapy sessions.

Example of Secondary Reinforcers

In another example, a child with articulation disorder responded exceptionally well to secondary reinforcers. Social reinforcements, such as verbal praise for correctly pronounced words and token rewards like stickers for completed speech exercises, were used. This approach was effective due to its ease of administration, resistance to satiation, and relevance in natural social settings, significantly improving the child's articulation skills.

Escape Reinforcement Examples

In a situation involving a child with selective mutism, escape reinforcement was employed. The child experienced relief from the pressure of speaking in group settings by gradually increasing speech in one-on-one sessions. Each successful attempt at speech reduced the child's anxiety, thereby reinforcing the behavior.

Utilizing Avoidance Reinforcement

A child with a stuttering was taught to use speech fluency techniques. Each successful use of the fluency strategy in anticipation of stuttering moments (thus avoiding the stutter) acted as a reinforcer. For example, the child learned to insert pauses and break their speech into shorter phrases. When they anticipate a challenging word or part of the conversation, using pauses or phrasing helps them avoid stuttering. This successful avoidance reinforces the practice of pausing and phrasing as a speech modification technique.

Punishment as a Reinforcer Examples

Type I Punishment Example

In a therapy session for a child with behavioral issues interrupting speech therapy, Type I punishment was used sparingly. Verbal reprimands were given following interruptions, which gradually decreased the frequency of these behaviors. However, the therapist remained cautious to avoid negative emotional responses from the child.

Type II Punishment Example

In another scenario, a child exhibiting disruptive behaviors during therapy sessions was subjected to Type II punishment. A token system was in place, and tokens were removed for each instance of disruptive behavior. Over time, this led to a reduction in negative behaviors, allowing more focus on goal attainment.

Schedules of Reinforcement: Case Studies

Case Study: Continuous Reinforcement

A child learning new vocabulary was given consistent praise (a form of continuous reinforcement) after every correct word usage. This method established the new vocabulary effectively but was gradually replaced by intermittent reinforcement to ensure long-term retention and prevent satiation.

Case Study: Intermittent Reinforcement

An older child working on complex speech sounds showed improvement when intermittent reinforcement was introduced. This schedule, varying between fixed ratio and variable ratio, helped maintain the child's interest and motivation in the long-term therapy process.

Best Practices: Reflections from Case Studies

  • Individualized Approach: Each case study reflects the importance of tailoring reinforcement strategies to each client's unique needs and circumstances.
  • Consistency and Timing: Immediate and consistent reinforcement was crucial in associating the desired behavior with the reward, as observed in the case studies.
  • Balancing Reinforcements: Using a mix of primary and secondary reinforcers, as well as carefully employing negative reinforcement, was key in maintaining client engagement and motivation.
  • Monitoring and Adjusting: Regular evaluations and adjustments of strategies based on the client's response were essential for therapy success.
  • Ethical Considerations: All the cases underscore the need for ethically sound practices and respecting the client's dignity.


Effective reinforcement in speech therapy should be tailored to the client's needs, the thoughtful application of reinforcement types, and the adaptation of strategies over time. By applying these principles, speech therapists can significantly enhance communication skills in their clients, ultimately leading to more successful outcomes.


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