News and Notes from The Johnson Center

Q & A: What is reinforcement and where do I start?

JCCHD | Mon, June 25, 2012 | [Applied Behavior Analysis][Autism Treatment][Q and A ]

In ABA (applied behavior analysis) terms, reinforcement is any stimulus or item that increases the likelihood of a behavior recurring in the future.  Commonly in ABA programs, the reinforcers that are used to increase behaviors are toys, access to games or activities, and praise.  Reinforcement can be used for ANY behavior you want to increase, from the identification of colors to appropriate social interactions with peers.  A smart ABA program will use reinforcement as an extremely powerful tool. 

To utilize reinforcement to promote positive behaviors and decrease negative behaviors:

1. Determine a variety of preferred items or activities to use as reinforcers.
2. Determine a schedule of reinforcement (suggestions below).
3. Fade, or reduce, the reinforcement to the most natural one possible.  For example, if you’re trying to increase independence when ordering food at a restaurant, the natural reinforcement would be the arrival of the food.  Being told, “Great job ordering your food!” and getting to play with an iPad would not be natural reinforcement.
4. Reevaluate whether the behaviors are still occurring as often as they should with natural reinforcement; frequently, when a parent or therapist asks why a behavior stopped (when it shouldn’t have), it is because that behavior was not being reinforced enough.

Good Job!Let’s focus on step two of this process, creating a schedule of reinforcement, which can be the hardest part due to all of the fine-tuning involved.  There are several important factors to consider when creating a schedule.  Let’s say your child loves to play videogames, drink smoothies, and swim, and you want to use these as reinforcers for ABA therapy goals. If these are the most powerful reinforcers you have, in order to use them successfully you need to think about: 

- How frequently he can do or have these things (both logistically and in terms of your parental preferences)
- Are these things regularly available? Can he already do or have these things without having to “work” for them?
- Are these things easily made available when he does earn them? Is there a lot of prep time involved? (I.e., waiting for sunscreen to soak in, obtaining all of the ingredients for the smoothie).
- How much smoothie can he drink before he’s full and doesn’t want it anymore?
- How long can he swim before he gets sunburned or has to get out to reapply sunscreen?
- How long can he play video games before becoming bored with them? 
- How difficult or strenuous is the work required to earn the reinforcement?  Is it so hard that he won’t be willing to do the work?
- Do some therapy goals need more reinforcement than others?
- Are there other fun items or activities he can get without having to work for them?  Are they taking away his motivation to work because they’re easier to access?

It is also important to keep in mind that a child’s preferences change, so you may have to rotate through reinforcers.  When you can successfully answer and address all of the questions above, then you are ready to put together an effective reinforcement schedule.

Nothing is cooler than dinosaurs.