Using Response Cost in Behavior Management

Applying Consequences to a Reinforcement System

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Response cost is the term used for removing reinforcement for an undesirable or disruptive behavior. In terms of Applied Behavior Analysis, it is a form of negative punishment. By removing something (a preferred item, access to reinforcement) you decrease the likelihood that the target behavior will appear again. It is often used with a token economy and is best used when a student understands the implications.

An Example of "Response Cost"

Alex is a young child with autism. He often leaves the instructional setting, requiring the teacher to get up and leave. He is currently working on sitting in the instructional setting while participating in an imitation program. He is given tokens on a token board for good sitting during instruction, and earns a three minute break with a preferred item when he earns four tokens. During trials he is given constant feedback on the quality of his sitting. Even though his leaving the site of instruction has decreased, he does occasional test the teacher by getting up and leaving: he automatically loses a token. He quickly earns it back when he returns to the table and sits well. Eloping from the classroom has been extinguished. Leaving the instructional site has dropped from 20 times a day to three times a week.

With some children, like Alex, response cost can be an effective way to extinguish problematic behavior while supporting other behavior.

With others, response cost can present some serious problems.

Response Cost as Part of an Applied Behavior Analysis Program

The basic unit of instruction in an ABA Program is the "Trial." Usually, a trial is very brief, involving an instruction, a response, and feedback. In other words, the teacher says, "Touch the red one, John." When John touches the red one (response), the teacher gives feedback: "Good job, John." The teacher may reinforce each correct response, or every third to fifth correct response, depending on the reinforcement schedule.

When respond cost is introduced, the student may lose a token for an inappropriate behavior: the student needs to know that he or she can lose a token for the target behavior. "Are you sitting nicely John? Good Job" or "No, John. We don't crawl under the table. I have to take a token for not sitting."

You need to constantly be evaluating the effectiveness of response cost. Does it really reduce the number of inappropriate behaviors? Or does it just drive the inappropriate behavior underground, or change the misbehavior? If the function of the behavior is control or escape, you will see other behaviors popping up, perhaps surreptitiously, that serve the function of control or escape. If it does, you need to discontinue response cost and attempt differentiated reinforcement.

Response Cost as Part of a Classroom Token Economy

Response cost can be part of a Classroom Token Economy, when there are certain behaviors that can cost a student a token, a point (or points) or money (a fine, if you are using play money, "School Bux" or whatever.) If it is a classroom program, then everyone in the class has to be able to lose points at a set rate for a certain behavior. This reductive method has been shown to be effective with students with ADHD, who often never get enough points for positive behavior, so they end up very quickly bankrupt in the classroom economy.


Mrs. Harper uses a token economy (point system) in her Emotional Support Program. Each student gets ten points for each half hour that he/she stays in their seat and works independently. They get 5 points for each completed assignment. They can lose 5 points for certain infractions. They can lose 2 points for less severe infractions. They can get 2 points as bonuses for exhibiting positive behavior independently: waiting patiently, take turns, thanking their peers. At the end of the day, everyone records their points with the banker, and at the end of the week they can use their points in the school store.

Cost Response for Students with ADHD

Ironically, the one population for whom cost response is effective are students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Often they fail at classroom reinforcement schedules because they can never quite earn enough points to get the prize or the recognition that comes with earning points.

When students start with all their points, they will work hard to keep them. Research has shown this can be a powerful reinforcement regimen for students with these behavioral disabilities.

Pros of a Response Cost Program

  • When you have real clarity about the behaviors for which a student can lose points, tokens or access to reinforcers, it is likely that you will see very little of those behaviors. At the same time, you are reinforcing the desired behavior.
  • Response cost is easy to administer,
  • When the student has a behavior that prevents his or her peers from learning, creates a danger to himself or others (eloping, climbing on furniture) response cost can provide a swift punishment without actually applying any aversive.

Cons of a Response Cost Program

  • If the ratio of positive reinforcement is not at least 3 to 1, your students may never get out of the hole. It will merely be punitive, and never really take hold.
  • If response cost is not consistently applied in a non-emotional way, it will become the source or recrimination and bad blood between students and staff or students and teacher.
  • If it builds dependence on punishment, it will be counter-productive. Reinforcing replacement behavior is still the most effective way to change undesirable behavior.


Mather, N. and Goldstein, S. "Behavior Modification in the Classroom" retrieved 12/27/2012.

Walker, Hill (February 1983). "Applications of Response Cost in School Settings: Outcomes, Issues and Recommendations.". Exceptional Education Quarterly 3 (4): 47