Misconceptions About Reinforcement

ABA often gets a bad rap due to misunderstandings about reinforcement. In my career alone, I’ve had people tell me that people are not like rats and pigeons, that reinforcement harms intrinsic motivation, and that when I do produce behavior change, it has nothing to do with ABA but with my abilities as a teacher. Today, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about reinforcement.

Reinforcement is not equivalent to rewards.

Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately following a behavior that increases the future likelihood of that behavior. For instance, I am more likely to say hello to my neighbor down the street because in the past he has responded by saying “hello” back to me. However, I do not say hello to my next-door neighbor because she has never responded to my greeting. My history of reinforcement with the neighbor down the street increases the likelihood that I will greet him upon seeing him.

Reinforcement occurs in the natural environment all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not.

We are reinforced by paychecks for going to work, by our favorite dessert for visiting a restaurant 30 minutes out of our way, by compliments when we get a new haircut and more. ABA utilizes reinforcement when an individual is not acquiring skills in order to help them learn. And when ABA is implemented correctly, reinforcement should be as close to naturally occurring reinforcers as possible and should be reduced systematically over time to levels that would naturally occur in their environment.

Reinforcement works for dogs and for humans.

The previous two points illustrate that humans do respond to reinforcement, and decades of scientific research back that up. Comparing the work behavior analysts do with humans to the work behavior analysts do with other animals is not far off base. What is off base is using such a comparison to imply that behavior analysts treat people with disabilities like dogs. As with other professionals who work with individuals with disabilities, (such as speech therapists, physical therapists, nurses, etc.) most behavior analysts are professionals who put a lot of time, care, and love into their work.

Reinforcement is individualized.

Everything we do in ABA is individualized because human beings are wonderfully complex creatures that cannot be characterized by statistics, averages, or norms. One of my students may find stickers reinforcing; another may show no interest. One student may find listening to music reinforcing; another may cover his ears and ask me to turn it off. In ABA, we seek to find the items and activities that are motivating for individuals; then use those as tools not only for reinforcement but for increasing skills and broadening interests and opportunities. In an ideal ABA session, my students spend a lot of time engaging with items and activities that they enjoy while also learning and growing.

It’s easy to fall prey to misconceptions about reinforcement, but such misconceptions can make it impossible for us to understand how to alter the environment in order to provide the best possible outcomes for our students. As Skinner put it, “The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.”

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WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges. You can read more of Sam’s posts for DRTL here!

Identifying the Function of a Behavior

As a BCBA, I am often asked to address problematic behaviors. One of the most common errors I see in addressing such behaviors is that the adults working with the child have not identified the function (or purpose) of the problematic behavior. Decades of research have shown that there are only four functions for any behavior: attentionescape/avoidance, access to a tangible, and automatic reinforcement (or something that just feels good internally, but cannot be observed by outsiders).

The function of the behavior is whatever happens immediately after the behavior, and increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. Here are a few examples of the functions, based on the same behavior:

  1. The therapist tells Lisa it’s time to practice tying shoes. Lisa starts biting her own hand. The therapist look shocked and calls in Lisa’s mother, who rubs her back lightly while Lisa ties her shoes then gives her a lot of verbal praise. This is likely an example of a behavior that functions for attention, because the mother comes in and provides both verbal and physical attention while she ties her shoes. Or it could be an example of a behavior that functions for escape or avoidance, since Lisa did not have to tie her shoes immediately once she began biting her hand.
  2. The therapist tells Lisa it’s time to practice tying shoes. Lisa starts biting her own hand. The therapist gently pushes Lisa’s hand down and then introduces a new task. This is an example of a behavior that functions as escape because Lisa does not have to tie her shoes once she begins biting her hand.
  3. The therapist tells Lisa it’s time to practice tying shoes. Lisa starts biting her own hand. The therapist says, “Oh, don’t stress, we’ll take a sensory break,” and gives Lisa a ball to squeeze. This is an example of a behavior maintained by tangible reinforcement. When Lisa began biting her hand she was immediately given access to a preferred item.

You’ll notice that I left out the automatic reinforcement. This is intentional because often, with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, people assume that a behavior is automatically reinforced instead of exploring these three potential functions described above. One way to recognize if a behavior is automatically reinforced is to note if the behavior happens when the child is alone and/or when no demands have been placed on the child. If it’s only happening around other people or when demands are placed, then it is highly unlikely that the behavior is automatically reinforced. For now, we’ll save automatic reinforcement for another blog post.

Identifying which of these functions is maintaining a problem behavior is essential to putting in an effective intervention. But how do you go about doing this?

The first thing you should do is assess! You can do an informal assessment, such as using the Functional Assessment Screening Tool (FAST) which is comprised of 16 questions that can help you quickly determine the function. If this does not provide conclusive results, you can have a BCBA do a formal functional assessment. Once you have identified the function of the behavior, you can change the environment so that not only does the child no longer receive that reinforcement for a problematic behavior, but there are appropriate replacement behaviors they can engage in to access that reinforcement. For more on that, you can look back at the Importance of Replacement Behaviors.

It may be difficult at first to think in terms of “function of behavior,” rather than assigning a reason for the behavior that is based on the child’s diagnosis or based on something happening internally inside the child’s brain that we can’t see (such as, “she’s just frustrated so she’s biting her hand,” or “she doesn’t know how to control herself”). However, once you try it out and experience some success with addressing the true function of behavior, you’ll likely see the beauty of a simple explanation for why we behave.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

ABA Journal Club #5: Caregivers as Interventionists

One of the tenets of ABA is to provide evidence-based practice. The best way to help us do this is to keep up with the literature! Each month, Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA will select one journal article and provide discussion questions for professionals working within the ABA community. The following week another ABA professional will respond to Sam’s questions and provide further insight and a different perspective on the piece.

There is a wealth of studies demonstrating that training caregivers to implement interventions is valuable for generalization of skills, improved learner outcomes, and decreases caregiver stress. While many teachers, behavior analysts, and other practitioners work to train caregivers; these practitioners are rarely given specific training on how to train caregivers.

In this month’s journal club article, behavior skills training (BST) is utilized to teach caregivers to be interventionists. BST is a model that involves instruction, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback. We hope this article will get you talking about your current level of training with BST and how your organization can improve in training practitioners to teach caregivers to implement behavior analytic strategies.

Loughrey, T. O., Contreras, B. P., Majdalany, L. M., Rudy, N., Sinn, S., Teague, P., … & Harvey, A. C. (2014). Caregivers as interventionists and trainers: Teaching mands to children with developmental disabilitiesThe Analysis of Verbal Behavior30(2), 128-140.

  • The researchers trained caregivers on a university campus using the BST model prior to home visits. In your current work, would this be a possibility for you? If not, how could you provide this type of training to caregivers? What obstacles can you predict, and how might you address them?
  • Discuss the multiple baseline design used in the study. How does it demonstrate experimental control? What can you determine from a visual analysis of the data?
  • Part of this study included a measure of whether a competently trained parent could teach their spouse how to implement mand training. Why is this important? Have you implemented similar strategies in your own work?
  • This study did include maintenance data. Why is this data valuable? Do you collect maintenance data on the caregiver training you provide?
  • Consider a particular skill you are teaching one or more clients. What would BST look like to teach caregivers how to implement the necessary procedures for teaching that skill?
  • The article states, “General instructions were provided prior to baseline, but parents were only able to implement the procedures effectively when full instructions, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback were used to train to mastery.” How can you change your current practice to ensure that you are providing the necessary steps to help caregivers master skills they have selected for parent training?

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

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Common errors with token systems

I love token systems and use them frequently with my clients. Sometimes I use Velcro stars or stickers, or the Token Towers (which are great because you can hear the token going in the plastic tube.) It’s easy to vary the token system to fit the interests and age of a client I am working with. However, I see several errors in their use. Below are a few of the common ones:

• Inconsistent Use – The use of a token system should be predictable. When I am doing an ABA session, the token system is usually available throughout the session. But token systems may be specific to certain activities or certain environments. Using them only some of the time though doesn’t improve their effectiveness.
• Lack of Clarity – You should know what behavior you are focusing on for the token system. For example, I will write down for myself that I am providing tokens for a few specific behaviors (such as whenever a client responds correctly to a current learning target, when they remain in their seats for a period of five minutes, and when they greet a person who comes into the room.) It should be clear for you, as the person implementing the token system, what behaviors you are attempting to increase so you can provide tokens when those behaviors are exhibited.
• Lack of Differentiation – One of the things I love about token systems is that it allows me to easily differentiate reinforcement. For example, let’s say I’m working with a child to teach them to name items from different categories. Usually, when I ask them to name an animal, they name one animal and I provide a token for a correct response. But on this particular day, they name three animals. I can provide more than one token for the higher quality response.
• Not Allowing the Token System to Grow with the Child – Another benefit of token systems is that they can grow with the child. Once a child has mastered a certain behavior, I no longer include it in the token system. The child is always earning tokens for behaviors or responses that are difficult. If you have a client who has been receiving tokens for the same behavior for several months, then one of the two things is happening: (1) the client has mastered the behavior and you aren’t providing reinforcement for more challenging behaviors OR (2) the client has not mastered the behavior and for some reason your token system is not working. Either way, a change needs to be made.
• Fail to Provide a Motivating Reward – I have had some experiences in which the token was supposedly reinforcing on its own. In rare cases, this might just work. However, the tokens should be used to earn a known reinforcer for that particular client.
• Fail to Provide Choices in Rewards – There’s a great body of research on how choice improves motivation. Unfortunately, many children with developmental disabilities have fewer choices in their day-to-day lives than their typically developing counterparts. Allowing your client to choose from a selection of activities or toys for reinforcement will likely improve the quality of your token system.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Preparing For The Holidays

While the holidays can be a very fun and exciting time, they often tend to disrupt regular routines. A disruption in routines can frequently lead to added stress, anxiety, and behavioral difficulties for individuals with autism and their families. So how can you maintain the fun in holidays but also manage the major changes in routine? Here are a few ideas that may be helpful:

Use and/or modify tools your child already utilizes well. If your child uses an activity schedule, calendar, or some kind of app to prepare for transitions and upcoming events; be sure to include new icons, symbols, or preparation for the events related to holidays.
Practice the event. It may be possible for you to role play an event such as a larger family dinner, loud music, or the arrival of a someone dressed up as a character (such as Santa Claus.)
Take the time to list out what may be unique or new. While you cannot prepare for everything, it’s valuable to consider what your child may not have encountered in the past. For example, will there be lit candles within reach? Will there be appealing items your child is required to leave alone? Once you’ve brainstormed a bit, you’ll be better able to respond appropriately.
Enlist some help. If there is a family member or friend who will be present and can help if you need it, ask for their help beforehand and be specific. This might be asking them to engage your child in an activity for a short period of time, or running interference for you when your distant aunt approaches with a litany of rude questions about autism.
Make sure your child has an appropriate way to request a break. Whether your child is verbal or nonverbal, it’s helpful to teach them an appropriate way to exit a situation that is uncomfortable. This is a skill you can practice at home and use in other environments as well.
Recognize your successes. The holidays can be a stressful time, but they can also be a great indicator of just how far your child has come. Relatives you haven’t seen in a year are far more likely to see the difference in your child’s growth than you are, since you’ve seen that steady growth from day to day. It can be a wonderful time to step back and acknowledge just how hard you have all worked in previous months.

These are simple steps that may be helpful in reducing stress during the holidays. Do you have special tips for how you prepare?


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

3 Ways To Fade Prompts

Prompts are ways we help our learners demonstrate new skills. We use prompts to get our students to greet a peer, flush the toilet, name the color blue, and clap their hands. Prompts are something we add to the situation because the natural or teaching cue was not enough to cause the student to respond. The natural cue of being finished using the toilet was not a strong enough reminder to flush the toilet so we added the verbal prompt, “flush the toilet” and the student now responds. Prompts are important but fading them is just as important.  Prompt fading needs to be planned from the start and an integral and essential component to the plan. Unless you are committing to following that child around for the rest of his life and tell him to flush the toilet – prompt fading is essential.

Some rules for prompt fading:

* Plan it out from the start.
* Train your staff.
* Do it gradually.
* If incorrect responding begins, return to last prompt level.

1. Least to Most Prompt Fading

Like we discussed in Monday’s post, least to most prompting involves starting with the least intrusive prompts and moving up in the prompting hierarchy. This can be beneficial because it gives students to the opportunity to be independent and you are only providing as much prompting as needed. This is a strategy we tend to use naturally. When you meet a your friend’s toddler you put out your hand to give a high five. If she doesn’t respond you say, “give high five.” If she still doesn’t respond you move her hand to your hand to give a high five. This is a natural method of prompting. When using this method, ideally the prompts will be somewhat self fading. If you are always starting at the least intrusive prompt, your students will have the opportunity to demonstrate independence. As the student begins to learn the task, he will need less and less prompts to perform it correctly.

Some key tips for using this prompt fading procedure:

  • allow wait time; if you do not provide wait time you may be providing more prompts than needed and taking away the opportunity for the student to respond correctly
  • take data; data is key to track progress. Every time you utilize this prompting method – note the level of prompt you used. You want to see that your student is requiring less intrusive prompts as time goes on. This will help avoid prompt dependence.
  • use high powered reinforcers; use an item that is actually a reinforcer that your student wants to work for. The sooner he demonstrates the skills, the sooner he gets the reinforcer.

2. Most to Least Prompt Fading

 

Most to Least prompt fading is another effective method of using prompts. With this method you start the most intrusive prompts and gradually fade to less intrusive prompts. The prompt fading is build right in. However, sometimes people forget that and in their head rename this most to most prompting. The key to errorless learning and using the most intrusive prompts first is that you fade the prompts out. The idea behind most to least prompting is that students will contact reinforcement right away and you will avoid errors and the students developing any incorrect habits.

How to fade prompts in Most to Least Prompting:

  • set criteria for changing prompts; once your student hits a particular number of days or sessions or trials at a particular prompt level, fade to the next level; take data to track progress
  • once you hit the criteria move to the next type of prompt; refer to our prompt hierarchy or order that is in Monday’s post. Move up the list to less and less intrusive prompts.
  • fade magnitude than switch prompt type; before you switch from a gestural to a verbal prompt adjust the magnitude of the prompt. A dramatic point to an object is different that a nod of your head.

Data is critically important for avoiding prompt dependence. You want to set a criteria ahead of time and take data to make sure you are sticking with the criteria. The criteria you set will depend on the student and the task. Maybe you want 3 consecutive days with each prompt level. If you are taking data you can ensure that you are sticking to that schedule. If errors begin occurring, go back a prompt level. The data will guide your implementation of this procedure. If you are fading too quickly, your data will tell you!

Prompt fading isn’t scary. Plan ahead and make sure you train your staff. This is a group endeavor! 

3. Time Delay

 

One effective way we can fade prompts is using a time delay. A time delay inserts a set amount of time between the natural or teaching cue and our prompt. When utilizing a time delay, start with a zero second (i.e. no) time delay – so it will basically be like errorless teaching. For the first few trials, give the prompt right away so the student knows how to respond. Then after several trials, increase the time delay. For example, you may start with 2 seconds. If the student does not respond within 2 seconds – provide the prompt. If the student responds before the 2 seconds, provide loads of reinforcement. Once the student is successful and responding under the 2 seconds for several trials, increase the time delay. Now wait until 4 seconds to provide the prompt. Continue on. If the student does not respond with the 4 second time delay, move back to the 2 second time delay.

The key to time delay is planning and data. Set the criterion ahead of time. Plan how many sessions you will do at 0 seconds before moving to the first time delay. Determine what the mastery criteria is – how many times do you want the student to respond within the time delay before increasing the time delay length? Take data on this. It can easily and quickly get confusing if you don’t have a data sheet to track what you are doing. Write the plan in simple terms at the top of your data sheet. I like to track prompted correct (PC), prompted incorrect (PI), unprompted correct (UC), and unprompted incorrect (UI) using those abbreviations on my data sheet. If the student responds before the prompt it is counted as unprompted and if it’s after the prompt it is prompted!

There is no magic number of trials or days you should stay within the 0 second or 2 second time delay. It depends on the student’s level of functioning and the difficulty of the task. This is where data majorly comes in to play. If you’ve moved along too quickly, you will know and you can scale back.

Time delay works really well with verbal prompts. Another key component to time delay working successfully is making sure the reinforcement you give for the unprompted responses is better than the reinforcement for prompted responses. So if Johnny responds before the time delay and says the color blue on his own – give him 3 m&ms and praise but if you are using a 2 second time delay and he doesn’t respond and you provide the verbal prompt “bl…” and then he says blue only provide praise. You want the independent responses to be getting more reinforcement so your student is motivated to engage in those responses more!


About The Author 

Sasha Long, BCBA, M.A., is the founder and president of The Autism Helper, Inc. She is a board certified behavior analyst and certified special education teacher. After ten years of teaching in a self-contained special education classroom, Sasha now works full time as a consultant, writer, and behavior analyst. Sasha manages and writes The Autism Helper Blog, as a way to share easy to use and ready to implement strategies and ideas. Sasha also travels internationally as a speaker and consultant providing individualized training and feedback to parents, educators, therapists and administrators in the world of autism. She is currently an adjunct professor in the school of Applied Behavior Analysis at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Sasha received her undergraduate degree in Special Education from Miami University and has a Masters Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact Sasha at sasha.theautismhelper@gmail.com.