Using Reinforcement Appropriately

By: MaryAnn Demchak & Jill Grattan 

Important Definitions:

  1. Contingent: depending on something else that might or might not happen; likely, but not certain to happen (e.g., plans to go to the beach are contingent on the weather) (From Merriam-Webster)
  2. Positive Reinforcement: The presentation of something contingent on the demonstration of a target behavior that maintains or increases the future likelihood of that behavior. Example: John uses his picture card to request an apple. John receives a slice of apple. John is more likely to use his picture card in the future to request apple.
  3. Negative Reinforcement: The removal of something contingent on the demonstration of a target behavior that maintains or increases the future likelihood of that behavior. Example: John uses his picture card to request a break from the activity. John receives a break from the activity (the activity is removed). John is more likely to use his picture card in the future
    to request a break.
  4. Reinforcers: Something (e.g., toy, activity, praise) that is provided following a target behavior and increases the probability of the target behavior
  5. Target Behavior: The target behavior is the behavior that you are trying to increase. In the above examples, the target behaviors are: John using his picture cards to request an apple (first example) and to request a break (second example).

Important Guidelines:

  • Be careful in choosing reinforcers; not all of the items or activities you think will be reinforcing, will actually be a reinforcer. That is, if the targeted behavior does not increase or maintain, then the item you attempted to use as a reinforcer was not actually a reinforcer. An item or activity is only a reinforcer if the behavior it follows increases or maintains in the future.
  • Be sure to base your selection of possible reinforcers on the results of a stimulus preference assessment (SPA). The lead article in the summer 2014 newsletter highlights how to conduct a SPA. Some important reminders to keep in mind when selecting potential stimuli to assess within a SPA include:
    • As much as possible, the child should choose the potential reinforcer; what parents/teachers/early interventionists think is reinforcing may not actually be reinforcing for the child.
    • Make a list of objects and activities the child plays or interacts with
      • The objects the child interacts with frequently may function as a reinforcer. For example, John frequently plays with a toy train, a car, blocks, and a tambourine; these items could potentially be used as reinforcers.
      • Many different activities might serve as reinforcers: hugs, tickles, high-5 games, chase, spins, swings, trampoline, yoga balls, vibrating massagers, etc.
    • Ask other people who interact with your child what your child likes. For example, find out what items or activities the child likes at school, day care, home, etc. These items or activities may function as a reinforcer in another setting such as the home.
  • Sometimes it will be necessary to choose another item or activity to try as a reinforcer if what you first tried did not work. Whatever you try next as a reinforce should be based on your SPA.
  • Reinforcers may change over time. Items or activities that serve as a reinforcer today, may not serve as a reinforcer tomorrow, or even in one hour. Have a variety of reinforcers available and let child choose from among them. Let the child choose a reinforcer frequently (e.g., after each lesson, let the child pick what he/she would like to work for [i.e., the reinforcer]).
  • Try to choose reinforcers that are as natural as possible. For example, if praise is most often given in a situation, then praise is most natural. However, in the beginning, it may be necessary to pair tangible reinforcers (e.g., toys, activities, food) with praise to keep the individual motivated. As the individual uses the new behavior more frequently, then use praise, without pairing the tangibles (e.g., toys, activities, food) with the praise. Eventually, fade the praise, and move to natural consequences (e.g., one puts on a jacket to stay warm, not because someone is providing praise).
  • Reinforcers should be given consistently and immediately upon the occurrence of the target behavior
    • Consistently – In the beginning, the reinforcer should be delivered upon each and every time the target behavior occurs.
    • Immediately – the reinforcer should be delivered as close in time as possible (e.g., within 3 seconds) to the target behavior occurring. At first, a reinforcer will not be effective if it is delivered several minutes later.
  • Reinforcer should be appropriate to the task. For example, one minute of toy play may be enough to be a reinforcer for washing hands; however, if the child spends 10 minutes cleaning up blocks, one minute of toy play may not be enough to reinforce the task.
  • Be aware of how recent activities affect reinforcers:
    • For example, if a child has just eaten large lunch, food may not be an effective reinforcer because the child is full.
    • If a child just spent one hour playing with a specific toy, the toy may not function as a reinforcer because the child may be tired of the toy.
    • Another example: a toy that a child has not interacted with for a day may be temporarily more reinforcing than a toy the child has been playing with continuously for a long time.