Reinforcement is likely one of the most used terms in Applied Behavior Analysis, as well as in many teaching and parenting approaches. Despite its commonality as a term, it is far too often misunderstood, misconstrued, or misapplied.
So what is reinforcement and why is it important?
Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. If that sounds incredibly open ended that’s because it is! Anything can cause a behavior to increase. Reinforcement is extremely subjective.
One child might wear a new shirt to school and find that it’s his new favorite shirt because he got several comments on it! Another child could find that same level of attention uncomfortable and decide that is not a shirt he will wear again.
The same response to the same behavior can reinforce one person and punish another.
To further illustrate how unpredictable reinforcement can be let’s look at an example of verbal discipline. Some children might be so intent on getting attention that it matters very little to them if it’s positive or negative attention. For instance, maybe a child is jumping on her bed despite being told it’s bedtime and that behavior will not be tolerated. If a parent comes down and gives her a stern “talking to”, or even shouts, about her unacceptable behavior, it’s possible this is reinforcing. If her motivation was mom and dad’s attention, not just the sensation of jumping on the bed, she has been reinforced.
Important elements of Reinforcement
One of the first and most crucial elements of reinforcement is performing a preference assessment. As demonstrated previously, everyone will not have the same reinforcers. Many won’t even have the same reinforcers from day to day. A preference assessment allows caretakers to gauge interest in a reinforcer and ensure we are utilizing actual reinforcers and not simply something we assume they will enjoy.
There are many variations to preference assessments and methods you can take to apply one. The simplest and easiest to use is simply allowing a child to move around a room and take note of the things they gravitate to and engage with. Likewise, creating a simple field of 2-3 items on their desk could be used to gauge a student’s interest in various items.
You might be surprised by the results of your preference assessment. It’s not uncommon for reinforcers to be very out of the ordinary. It doesn’t matter the cost, scarcity, or features of a reinforcer if someone finds it reinforcing and is motivated by it, then use it!
Qualities of Reinforcement
There are many pieces of the puzzle when it comes to effective reinforcement. Here are a few more qualities reinforcement should have:
Varied – Most people don’t enjoy the same reinforcers over and over, instead, they’d rather have some variety in the things they do. Preference assessments help us avoid this challenge.
Distinct – The best reinforcers are crystal clear about what they are reinforcing. We must be very distinct and descriptive in our language regarding behavior we want to see while ignoring behavior we want to decrease. Immediate – Much like distinct, immediacy of our reinforcement ensures it’s clear to the child what we are reinforcing. The timing of reinforcement plays a heavy role in the child making the connection with their actions and ability to access reinforcement.
Reinforcement can motivate us to do things we don’t usually do
The amazing thing about reinforcement is its strength. We learn behaviors through reinforcement and because of how powerfully we desire it we can often combine learned behaviors in abstract ways because we hope for reinforcement of the behavior. No other species can combine skills reliably in these abstract ways.
|Regardless of whether you are going into a coffee shop you’ve visited a hundred times or a deli in a new country you’re visiting for the first time you know that the behavior of approaching the counter is likely to be rewarded with being allowed to place an order and purchase food.
|While out with a friend they ask you to retrieve something from their car. If they tell you “ I drive the blue sedan with license plate 123-XYZ parked on the far side of the lot” you will be able to combine those many variables and make the correct decision when looking for your friends vehicle.
In these examples a person will know they can acquire reinforcement, either the tangible reinforcement of a meal or the social reinforcement from a friend, if they put forth the effort needed. When that reinforcement is strong enough the necessary steps and combinations of actions will be made to access that reinforcement.
Reinforcement can be strengthened or weakened
Reinforcement does not typically maintain a static value. For instance, in the example of a friend requesting someone to go retrieve something from their car there are many variables that could increase or decrease our likelihood of complying.
Example behavior of going to the care to retrieve an item.
|“Friend” is more of an acquaintance or is a less trustworthy friend
|Reinforcer is weakened. Individual’s appreciation or gratitude is less valuable
|Its raining heavily outside
|Effort required to access reinforcer is higher.
|Friend is wheelchair bound
|Reinforcer is strengthened. The social approval and common courtesy of preventing a high effort trip the car for our friend is reinforced by societal norms and possibly the feeling of performing a good deed.
|Item being retrieved from the car is a gift
|Reinforcer is strengthened. Presuming the individual is looking forward to this gift the tangible reinforcer will strengthen their willingness to go.
With this understanding of reinforcement, we can far more effectively use it as a teaching tool. Perhaps before starting a difficult task we encourage our student to work for a preferred break with a video game he enjoys and the opportunity to invite a peer to join him. If the game is as preferred as we believe and this student enjoy peer interactions this reinforcer could motivate him to work through this difficult task.
Another way we can make a reinforcer stronger is through deprivation. As the saying goes “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Limiting access to a reinforcer helps it retain or even strengthens it’s reinforcement value. Most people have had an experience with overindulging in a reinforcer and recall the loss of appeal from that item. Whether it’s eating too much of a preferred food or riding that roller coaster one too many times, satiation can reduce or even eliminate the reinforcement value of an item for a very long time, maybe even permanently.
By sticking to break limits or cycling through reinforcers we can ensure that our students and kids don’t become satiated on their reinforcers.
“Pairing” is another term used often in conjunction with reinforcement. Pairing is when someone becomes the person that offers reinforcers and through that relationship in the students mind the caregiver and reinforcer(s) are a pair.
This relationship can help the caregiver become a reinforcer in and of themselves because the child see’s them as the source of reinforcers. By building trust, pairing with reinforcers, and leading the way into a cooperative relationship we can strengthen the efficacy of the reinforcers we use. Playing an iPad game with a well paired teacher sitting with them and cheering them on will do far more to motivate a child than working for an iPad game to sit and play alone in the corner of the classroom.
Another factor in reinforcement is hard to quantify but we like to call “The Awesomeness Factor”. The Awesomeness factor is the relation between seemingly trivial or invisible aspects of a reinforcer and how powerful it is. When a reinforcer is truly “awesome” it often combines several reinforcers into one.
An example of this is a student, that considers himself a “sneaker head”, receives a pair of knock-off Nikes. While excited for his new shoes, that reinforcement is somewhat lessened by the fact that he knows they are not legitimate. He has the tangible reinforcer of the shoes themselves but is less reinforced due to the associations he makes with the name brand item.
The same student would most likely find a new pair of the same shoes from the manufacturer to be more reinforcing and “Awesome”. He might associate authentic Nikes with success, athletic skill, or wealth. He is now reinforced by both the tangible and by the way the shoes make him feel. Learning history can play a part as well. If the student associates Nikes with the memory of his first successful 3-pointer in a basketball game that can play a role in his relationship with the brand as well. The awesomeness factor is stronger with the second pair of shoes.
Reinforcement can be used ethically and unethically
While reinforcement is a more positive aspect of learning, it can still be used in an unethical manner. Ironically, many of the more common unethical practices tend to be very intuitive responses to behavior or are good practices implemented poorly.
Deprivation is a method of improving the strength of a reinforcer. If deprivation is used excessively or with a student that has very limited reinforcers to begin with, it is not an ethical tool. Likewise, the point of reinforcers is to motivate students to work on non-preferred tasks, so some level of effort is required, however, making that effort level too high is not an appropriate approach either. One person might find tying their shoes to be a very simple task they hardly register doing while another might find the effort level of remembering all those steps to be very high. People vary and so must their reinforcers.
Synthetic and Natural Reinforcers
It is unfortunately very rare that we discuss the difference between synthetic and natural reinforcers.
It is unethical for us to use synthetic or contrived reinforcers continuously with no plan to help the student transition to a natural reinforcer for a few reasons. To begin with, we teach students skills to help them pursue being more independent of their caregivers. Perhaps we use verbal praise and video game breaks to motivate a child to brush their teeth, but we must move them towards an understanding of the natural reinforcers available following dental hygiene. They need to learn the expectations that go with being part of a community and possible health consequences regarding hygiene.
Another reason to fade to natural reinforcers stems from the fact that the synthetic reinforcers we offer in a classroom, home, or therapy center take place in a controlled environment and are difficult or likely impossible to maintain in the real world. It’s not reasonable to expect yourself to always be there with a reinforcer when a child engages in a desired behavior.
Finally, one of the criticisms reinforcement plans often receive is kids expecting praise or reinforcers for every little thing they do and losing motivation when they know those reinforcers are unavailable. This is a possibility when we have not helped that student make the connection with natural reinforcers. If they know they must earn iPad time via their token board and mom didn’t bring the token board to the grocery store it is reasonable to assume they will be less likely to cooperate with mom since their reinforcers are unavailable. Transitioning to natural reinforcers over time is the best solution.
Ethical Best Practices
Ethical use of reinforcement is really quite simple. Primarily, we should constantly look for opportunities to be reinforcing! The best reinforcement is having a cheerleader in your corner. Depending on the person this can be literally cheering and getting very boisterous when we see successes. For others a more effective approach might be reminding them of upcoming reinforcers and how excited we are to access those things. This will further pair us with the things they like most in life!
The instinct to make reinforcers too scarce must be ignored. Our desire to decrease the chance of our student becoming satiated often involves a level of deprivation that just becomes frustrating for them. Instead, look for reasons to give them the reinforcer and use very distinct language to make sure they know when they receive it exactly what they did to earn it. That way we can make it clear in their mind reinforcers are easy to access but only when they cooperate and communicate.
Side effects may include…
While using reinforcement, regardless of how successful we are with being ethical, it’s critical that preventive measures are taken around potential side effects. As already mentioned, we should always be working to fade from synthetic to natural reinforcers. This is far more natural plus it prevents those we care for from becoming co-dependent upon us.
Another potential oversight occurs when targets become so focused on increasing a specific behavior that we allow reinforcement to decrease for other behaviors. Perhaps a student is working on having safe hands rather engaging in pinching and hitting himself when frustrated. It’s natural for us to be very focused on decreasing this dangerous and challenging behavior. However, if focus on reducing a dangerous behavior distracts us from reinforcing, say, his language, we could see a decrease in this very important behavior simply because of our commitment to helping him remain safe. Similarly, if we only use a child’s strongest reinforcers for a specific behavior, it could result in a decrease in cooperation with other goals because the child knows the only way to receive that high value reinforcer is when a certain goal is being worked on.
Types of Reinforcement
Reinforcement can be delivered in numerous ways and with varied approaches. Differential Reinforcement is the method of reinforcing behaviors the team intends to increase while withholding reinforcement from behaviors targeted to decrease. There are several variations within this concept, two of which are beneficial for everyone to use.
Differential Reinforcement of Other behaviors, also called omission training, is an approach that reinforces behavior that is not the behavior we hope to decrease. To use this method we must first objectively identify the behavior we are trying to reduce. Once we have a definition of the targeted behavior we can look for behaviors that do not fit the definition of that behavior and provide reinforcement as often as possible.
An example might be a student that scratches himself as a form of self-injury when frustrated. Implementing DRO for this person might include recognizing when he is in the situations likely to cause frustration and being highly reinforcing of other behaviors.
We might say:
I love that you’re having safe hands.
You’re doing a great job holding your pen.
Thank you for being kind to yourself.
Differential Reinforcement of Alternative behaviors is a method in which we recognize the function of targeted behavior and reinforce alternate behaviors that serve that same function. To implement this effectively we need to know the function of a behavior first so we can offer and reinforce effective replacements.
An example might be a student that picks his nose often. This is an inappropriate and unhygienic habit. Should we see our student using a tissue we would want to highly reinforce that replacement behavior.
Reinforcement is a powerful tool and one that everyone uses. Whether it is used well or ethically might require a bit more effort. Understanding what makes reinforcement effective and having some examples of where challenges can arise is half the battle. Actual implementation is the other half. Here are some ideas for any situation.
Most kids don’t get to do a lot of their own shopping. Perhaps they can earn a special trip to the store to buy a new toy. Making it clear that this will be something they can access after doing all of their homework or completing all of the steps of their morning routine, or whatever the task might be. As long as they don’t have unlimited access and we know satiation will take some time and it can motivate them to complete whatever tasks we’re targeting.
High Quality Attention
Parents, teachers, therapists, caregivers…. Whatever title one might identify with we can all agree providing reinforcing attention to those in our care is hard! So much time and energy is spent on the necessities of life that more often than not everything that feels optional is eliminated. If there’s a need, a diaper change, cut finger, or hunger, we address it right away. That kind of attention is required so it is given. The optional attention is so hard to give because we’re always so tired.
Despite how tired we often feel we must make efforts to provide high quality attention. Most kids are highly reinforced by attention, especially from those they’re close to, and receiving it could prevent many of the obstacles that contribute to our exhaustion.
Attention as a reinforcer must be high quality! That means we are not engaging in the endless social media treadmill on our phone or half present while we distract ourselves with something else. High quality attention is engagement, conversation, and truly being present in the moment with them.
Escape is a function of behavior and the motivation behind a lot of behaviors. There are times the most reinforcing thing we could allow our kids to do is nothing! Of course, there are times we can’t just withdraw a task, but feeling like every task we have on our list must be followed through with right away is not necessary. Sometimes, even a delay is reinforcement enough.
For many students, having a visual to work through until they can escape the task at hand can be instrumental for momentum. This can be a great time to bring out that token board or checklist so they can visually track their progress and know exactly when that break is coming.
There are hundreds of blogs, articles, and Pinterest boards to be found with ideas for visuals and reinforcement programs. With a firm understanding of some of the factors at work in reinforcement we can find what works best for our situation and make sure that the reinforcement applied is effective, ethical, and enthusiastic for better outcomes in our day to day!