Using Contingency Contracts in the Classroom

As adults, we’re fairly accustomed to contracts for car loans, new employment, or updates to our smartphones. But contracts can also be beneficial in the classroom setting.
A contingency contract is defined as “a mutually agreed upon document between parties (e.g., parent and child) that specifies a contingent relationship between the completion of specified behavior(s) and access to specified reinforcer(s)” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). There are several studies that indicate using a contingency classroom can be beneficial in the classroom setting.
Cantrell, Cantrell, Huddleston, & Wooldridge (1969) identified steps in creating contingency contracts:
(1) Interview the parent or guardian of the student. This allows you to work together to identify problem behaviors to be addressed, identify the contingencies currently maintaining these behaviors, determine the child’s current reinforcers, and establish what reinforcement or punishment procedures will be used.
(2) Use this information to create a clear, complete, and simple contract. The authors provide examples of how these contracts might look. You can vary the contract based upon the behaviors you are addressing with your student and the student’s ability to comprehend such contracts.
(3) Build data collection into the contract itself. You can see an example from the article below. For this example, it is clear how points are earned and how the child can utilize those points, and the contract itself is a record of both the points and the child’s behaviors.

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There are clear benefits to utilizing such contingency contracting: building relationships across different environments in which the student lives and works, addressing one or more challenging behaviors simultaneously, and providing opportunities for students to come into contact with reinforcement. You can read the entire article here:

Cantrell, R. P., Cantrell, M. L., Huddleston, C. M., & Wooldridge, R. L. (1969). Contingency contracting with school problems. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2(3), 215-220.

And much more has been written about contingency contracting. If you’d like to learn more, we suggest taking a look at one or more of the following:

Bailey, J. S., Wolf, M. M., & Phillips, E. L. (1970). Home-based reinforcement and the modification of pre-delinquent’s classroom behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3(3), 223-233.

Barth, R. (1979). Home-based reinforcement of school behavior: A review and analysis. Review of Educational Research, 49(3), 436-458.

Broughton, S. F., Barton, E. S., & Owen, P. R. (1981). Home based contingency systems for school problems. School Psychology Review, 10(1), 26-36.

Miller, D. L., & Kelley, M. L. (1991). Interventions for improving homework performance: A critical review. School Psychology Quarterly, 6(3), 174.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Tip of the Week: Teaching Language—Focus on the Stage, Not the Age

CHILD IN SPEECH THERAPYTeaching language skills is one of the most frequent needs for children with autism, but also one of the most misunderstood skillsets amongst both parents and practitioners. The desire to hear your learner speak in full sentences can be overwhelming, making it especially difficult to take a step back and consider what it means to communicate and how communication skills develop in neurotypical children. Many times we get hung up on what a child should be capable of communicating at a certain age, rather than focusing on what they are capable of communicating at this stage of development.

Many practitioners and curricula utilize Brown’s Stages of Language Development.* Brown described the first five stages of language development in terms of the child’s “mean length of utterance” (or MLU) as well as the structure of their utterances.

Brown_Grammatical_Structures_ChartFrom aacinstitute.org

 

Sometimes it is necessary to compare a child to his or her same-age peers in order to receive services or measure progress, but it can be detrimental to focus on what a child should be doing at a specific age instead of supporting them and reinforcing them for progress within their current stage.

Research has suggested that teaching beyond the child’s current stage results in errors, lack of comprehension, and difficulty with retention. Here are some common errors you may have witnessed:

  • The child learns the phrase “I want _____ please.” This phrase is fine for “I want juice, please” or “I want Brobee, please,” but it loses meaning when overgeneralized to “I want jump, please” or “I want play, please.” It’s better to allow your learner to acquire hundreds of 1-2 word mands (or requests) before expecting them to speak in simple noun+verb mands.
  • The child learns to imitate only when the word “say” is used. Then the child makes statements such as “say how are you today,” as a greeting or “say I’m sorry,” when they bump into someone accidentally. Here, the child clearly has some understanding of when the phrases should be used without understanding the meanings of the individual words within each phrase.
  • The child learns easily overgeneralized words such as “more.” This is useful at times, but the child can start using it for everything. Instead of saying “cookie” he’ll say “more.” Instead of saying “train,” he’ll say “more.” And he may say “more” when the desired item is not present, leaving the caregiver frustrated as he/she tries to guess what the child is requesting. Moreover, as language begins to develop, he may misuse it by saying things such as “more up, please.”
  • The child learns to say “Hello, how are you today?” upon seeing a person entering a room. A child comes into the classroom and the learner looks up, says “Hello, how are you today?” The child responds, “Great! Look at the cool sticker I got!” Your learner then doesn’t respond at all, or may say “fine,” as he has practiced conversations of greeting.

These are only a few of the common language errors you may see. While you may want your learner to speak in longer sentences, your goal should be to have them communicate effectively. With this goal in mind, it becomes essential to support them at their current stage, which means it’s essential to assess them and understand how to help them make progress.

This is why I always use the VB-MAPP to assess each child and make decisions about language instruction. I need to have a full understanding of how the learner is using language, and then move them through each stage in a clear progression. I may want the child to say “Hello, how are you today?” But when I teach them that, do they understand those individual words? Do they comprehend what today means as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow? Do they generalize the use of “how” to other questions?

As you make treatment decisions for your learner, think about their current stage and talk about how to support your child with both a Speech Language Pathologist and an ABA therapist.

*Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

 

 

Focus on Generalization and Maintenance

On more than one occasion, I’ve been in the situation that a student will only demonstrate a skill in my presence. And I’ve heard from other colleagues that they have had similar experiences. This is highly problematic. When it happens with one of my students, there is only one person I can blame: myself.  A skill that a student can only demonstrate in my presence is a pretty useless skill and does nothing to promote independence.

TeacherSo what do you do when you find yourself in this situation? You reteach, with a focus on generalization. This means that, from the very beginning, you are teaching with a wide variety of materials, varying your instructions, asking other adults to help teach the skill, and demonstrating its use in a variety of environments. Preparing activities takes more time on the front-end for the teacher, but saves a ton of time later because your student is more likely to actually master the skill. (Generalization, after all, does show true mastery.)

Hopefully, you don’t have to do this, though. Hopefully, you’ve focused on generalization from the first time you taught the skill. You may see generalization built into materials you already use, such as 300-Noun List at AVB press.

Another commonly cited issue teachers of children with autism encounter is failure to maintain a skill. In my mind, generalization and maintenance go hand-in-hand, in that they require you to plan ahead and consider how, when, and where you will practice acquired skills. Here are a few tips that may help you with maintenance of skills:

  • Create notecards of all mastered skills. During the course of a session, go through the notecards and set aside any missed questions or activities. You might need to do booster sessions on these. (This can also be an opportunity for extending generalization by presenting the questions with different materials, phrases, environments, or people.)
  • Set an alert on your phone to remind you to do a maintenance test two weeks, four weeks, and eight weeks after the student has mastered the skill.
  • Create a space on your data sheets for maintenance tasks to help you remember not only to build maintenance into your programs, but also to take data on maintenance.

Considering generalization and maintenance from the outset of any teaching procedure is incredibly important. Often, when working with students with special needs, we are working with students who are already one or more grade levels behind their typically developing peers. Failing to teach generalization and maintenance, then having to reteach, is a waste of your students’ time.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

 

 

Thinking Ahead: Self-Determination in the Elementary Years

Though I typically work with elementary-aged children, I’m consistently thinking about what skills the child needs in order to be independent and ready to transition out of the school setting as an adult.  Sometimes, it may seem that it is too early to be thinking about adulthood when the child is only 8 or 9, but there are things we can, and should, be doing to prepare our students from an early age.

One of my favorite articles addressing this issue is a 2015 article from Teaching Exceptional Children by Papay, Unger, Williams-Diehm, and Mitchell.  (The entire issue is about transition and is a fantastic read. You can view that issue here: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/tcxa/47/6.) While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires transition planning to begin at age 16, and some states require it to begin at age 14, if we want to provide more successful outcomes for individuals with special needs, we must begin thinking about the transition into adulthood at a younger age.

Papay et al., suggest focusing on self-determination. “Individuals who are self-determined have better knowledge of their own interests, strengths, and needs, and they carry out their own desires. Self-determined individuals make decisions, set goals, and carry out the necessary steps to ensure their goals are accomplished” (Papay, et al., p. 311, 2016). The authors then go on to suggest activities for incorporating self-determination at the elementary level, such as understanding grades, using responsibility charts, making choices, and problem solving. In the push to get students up to speed with academic skills, we may be leaving out these core skills that provide success in adulthood. And these skills, such as goal-setting and problem-solving are skills that typically developing children need years of practice to develop.

            So, how do you get started? Here are a few suggestions:

  • First, read the full article here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0040059915587901
  • Call a meeting of the adults in the child’s life and the child to talk about appropriate goals around these specific skill sets.
  • Write down the ways in which you can incorporate self-determination activities in your student’s daily life.
  • Identify short-term outcomes you would like to see in relation to the activities you’ve identified.
  • Share with your colleagues and other students what you are doing in relation to self-determination to help normalize this conversation on the elementary level.

In recent decades, we have come a long way in providing services for youth with special needs. At this point in time, it is becoming more and more clear that we need to be doing more for adults with special needs, but we can’t wait until the individual is well into their teenage years to begin thinking about it.

Papay, C., Unger, D. D., Williams-Diehm, K., & Mitchell, V. (2015). Begin With the End in Mind Infusing Transition Planning and Instruction Into Elementary Classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 47(6), 310-318.

Focus on Reinforcement

Focus on Reinforcement

Teaching can be incredibly overwhelming, especially in a special education classroom. Between paperwork, lesson planning, updating bulletin boards, and actually teaching, the day can get pretty hairy. Sometimes, that stress leads to a short temper, which can lead to a punitive classroom environment.

If things seem to be going in the wrong direction in your classroom, the first thing you should do is focus on reinforcement. Here are a few steps to consider:

  1. Identify 1-3 behaviors you would like to see your students exhibiting. For instance, maybe you’d like to see an increase in hand-raising (as opposed to calling out.) Clearly define the behaviors you want to see.
  2. Set up a contingency for increasing those behaviors. Maybe you’ll wear a MotivAider to give yourself a reminder throughout the day to provide verbal praise to students exhibiting the target behavior. Maybe you’ll have students earn points that they can exchange for other things, such as a homework pass or lunch with the teacher. Maybe you’ll encourage students to recognize each other when they engage in the target behavior.
  3. Teach the students about the target behavior(s). Introduce the goals to the students. It’s helpful to create a sign or other visual to remind students about the new goals.

While these are simple steps, providing more verbal praise and other reinforcement can turn around a classroom with too much time spent on reprimands and punishments.

It’s also helpful to remember (especially for new teachers) that you can make changes at any time. One of my mentors in my first year of teaching told me to tell my class we had gotten off track, so we were having a brand new first day of school. (I was teaching fourth and fifth grade students with emotional behavioral disorders.) It was shocking how well that new first day of school went over. The students were excited about the idea of a “fresh start” in the middle of the school year, and it helped me get back on track with creating a more positive learning environment.

Ultimately, the goal is to teach students about appropriate behavior by spending more time showing them what they’re doing right than focusing on what they’re doing wrong.

 

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

 

A Guide To The SupervisorABA

We’re so excited to present SupervisorABA, one of my favorite new resources available to both supervisors and individuals pursuing Board Certification in Behavior Analysis. I was very excited to have the opportunity to ask its creators, Dana Reinecke and Cheryl Davis, about their process in creating it and how it can help improve training of behavior analysts. Dana is a BCBA-D working New York, and Cheryl is a BCBA working in Massachusetts.

A Guide To The SupervisorABA

NOTE: The article refers frequently to BCBAs. A BCBA is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. You can learn more about that by referring to this previous post or visit www.bacb.com.

 

Sam: What inspired you to create this resource?

Dana and Cheryl: Our mission is to help supervisors “build better BCBAs” by providing effective supervision with task-oriented activities that align with the current BACB task list. We both have a desire to help behavior analysts to be as effective as possible, and have encountered BCBAs who do not seem to have all of the necessary skills.  Supervision is the place to make sure that these skills are well-developed, but it can be tricky to manage time and get all of the skill areas covered within the course of supervision.  We wanted to help supervisors to structure supervision so that they can cover each and every task list item over the course of supervision.  As such, our mission is to assist BCBA candidates and their supervisors in the development of behavior analytic skills through applied experiences and contact with the research literature. Creating better behavior analysts will ensure quality services are provided to all members of society.

 

Sam: Can you summarize the services provided by SupervisorABA?

Dana and Cheryl: In a nutshell, we have developed 2-5 activities for each item on the task list.   These activities vary and include applied activities with clients, video-based activities, reading and discussing journal articles, and downloadable worksheets.  We wanted to offer choices within each activity so that supervisors can tailor the content to what the supervisee would most benefit from. We have also included reading lists for each content area, and other resources like a YouTube channel for video content.  Subscribers are able to access all of the activities, reading lists, and resources through an interactive website that generates a downloadable, printable supervision form based on the BACB supervision form, that can be used to document supervision activities.  The website also keeps track of which task list items have been completed and shows a percentage of completion for each content area.

 

Sam: You mentioned your YouTube channel with videos for training purposes. Why did you feel that was important, and how do you go about selecting videos?

Dana and Cheryl: We think it’s important because it adds diversity to supervision.  The videos can enhance the supervisee’s ability to apply task list mastery to scenarios different than those they encounter daily in their practice.  We enjoy spending time finding videos we think will be useful to supervision so supervisors do not need to spend time trying to find their own videos – making supervision time more efficient!  At this time, videos are curated from what is publicly available on YouTube.  Some of them were made to explain and demonstrate behavioral concepts, but some are just really interesting naturally-occurring examples of principles that supervisees can view, discuss, or use to practice data collection and analysis.  We’ll be updating the YouTube channel regularly.  Subscription to the channel is free and open to anyone, and playlists are organized according to task-list item so it’s easy to find what you might need.

 

Sam: One of the things I love about SupervisorABA is how I can easily customize it to meet the individual needs of the people I supervise. Your service is dedicated to helping provide effective supervision. How is the customization important to your mission?

Dana and Cheryl: This was especially important to us as the supervisees’ experience settings vary greatly.  On the one hand, it’s important to make sure that supervision matches the supervisee’s needs in her or his current setting, but we wanted to make sure that supervision covered areas outside of the fieldwork experience so future BCBAs would have a breadth of knowledge on how behavior analytic skills can be applied across setting, clients and the like!

 

Sam: The website is quite easy to use. What was the process for designing it to help meet the needs of users?

Dana and Cheryl: We really wanted a user friendly website that was easy to navigate and did not require time on the supervisor’s part to learn the process.  Using our background in online teaching, we teamed up with a great web design company that helped us make an easy to navigate system.  We have received great feedback from customers on ways to enhance the website and already have some upgrades in progress, such as adding multiple activities to one form!

 

Sam: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

We hope that people use our product to enhance supervision.  As stated before, our goal is to help supervisors build better behavior analysts by making supervision more productive while ensuring each item on the task list is covered in a meaningful way.  We really want to help people provide quality services provided to anyone in need of behavior analytic services!

You can take a peek at SupervisorABA yourself at or follow them on Facebook

 

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Building Variability Into The Routine

Several years ago, I was working with a 6-year-old boy we’ll call Terrence. Terrence was diagnosed with autism. He was a very playful child who was generally good-tempered, enjoyed playing with trains and watching TV, and posed few difficult behavior issues for his parents…until the day there was construction on their walk from the grocery store to their apartment and they decided to take a different route home. What happened next is what most people would call a full-blown meltdown: Terrence dropped to the ground, screaming and crying, and refused to move.

Building Variability Into The Routine

Many of the parents I work with have a similar story when it comes to their child with autism and an unexpected change in the routine. The change varies: the favorite flavor of fruit snacks is out of stock at the store or the babysitter greeted the child at the bus instead of the parent or they grew out of the coat they wore the past two winters… In fact, it can be difficult to anticipate exactly what specific routine may be a trigger for your learner. This is precisely why building variability into the routine can be helpful.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • First, think about the routines that are the most likely to be interrupted. Make a list of these so you can begin thinking about how to address those issues.
  • Second, work with your team (whether that means family or practitioners that work with your learner) to select 2-3 routines to focus on first.
  • Discuss how those routines would most likely be interrupted. For instance, a favorite TV show may be interrupted during election season or you may have a family function when the TV show is aired. In teaching your learner to be flexible with changes in routine, you will contrive changes that are likely to occur to give your learner quality practice.
  • Plan to vary the routine. Essentially, you are setting up the change in routine, but you will be prepared in advance to help your learner behave appropriately. (You’re much more likely to experience some success in this scenario than you would be if a change in routine occurs unexpectedly and/or last minute.)
  • Give your learner a vocabulary for what is happening. I teach many of my students the term “flexible.” I might say, “I appreciate how you’re being flexible right now” or “Sometimes when plans change we have to be flexible. This means…”
  • Reinforce appropriate behaviors related to flexibility! You want to be clear when they’ve made an appropriate, flexible response. In the planning phase, you can discuss what appropriate reinforcers might be for the routines you are targeting.

If you build in variations in routine and teach your learner some strategies for being flexible, you and your learner are much more likely to be successful in navigating unexpected changes.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

How To Prepare To Reinforce Appropriate Behavior

Often when we’re working with children with autism there are two areas we focus on: communication and play. However, due to the nature of your day or a specific activity, you may unintentionally punish spontaneous communication or play. So before we learn how to prepare to reinforce appropriate behavior, let’s consider a couple of examples:

How To Prepare To Reinforce Appropriate Behavior

Julie is a teacher in a first grade classroom with six children with autism. One of her students is Marcos, who rarely uses spontaneous language. While Julie is running the morning meeting, Marcos suddenly interrupts and says “I like elephants.” Julie says, “It’s quiet time, right now, Marcos.”

David is a teacher in a fourth grade inclusion classroom. Jaylene is a student with autism who rarely initiates interactions. He is speaking with another teacher when Jaylene approaches with a puppet, hands it to David, and says “puppet.” David tells her, “In just a minute, Jaylene.”

 In both of these instances, the teacher has not done anything wrong. In fact, we have all done this from time to time in the midst of busy days in which we’re managing multiple tasks. But there’s an argument to be made here that both Marcos and Jaylene missed opportunities for reinforcement of the behaviors we most want them to exhibit.

One thing that can help is to prioritize your goals. If the primary goal for Marcos is to use spontaneous language, then when we start out we want to provide a continuous rate of reinforcement. This means that it will sometimes interrupt other tasks, but if it is the biggest priority, that’s okay! The long term gains of reinforcing Marcos’s spontaneous language likely outweigh the frustration of an interrupted lesson.

The second thing that can help is communicating the priorities to other adults and staff. If David lets other teachers and administrators know that Jaylene’s foremost goal is to initiate interactions related to play, then a brief interruption in a conversation should not be an issue. Again, the long term gains of reinforcing Jaylene’s initiation of play likely outweigh any issues around an interrupted conversation.

Finally, try to plan ahead. Think about instances in which the child is most likely to engage in the targeted behaviors and talk with staff about how to ensure reinforcement takes place. The last thing we want to do is to unintentionally punish the desired behaviors.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Simplifying the Science: Using SAFMEDS in Applied Behavior Analysis

When I first heard about SAFMEDS, I wondered how they were different from standard use of flashcards. What I learned, in fact, is that the process is quite different, and it’s evidence-based! SAFMEDS is actually an acronym that means “Say All Fast Minute Each Day Shuffled.” (I know, I know…it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.) Created by Ogden Lindsley, SAFMEDS are focused specifically on fluency, or, in other words, speed and accuracy.

While there are some things that don’t require fluency, there are many things that do: such as simple multiplication or letter recognition. This means that some tasks I teach my students will require the use of fluency training, which is often completed through the use of SAFMEDS. Lindsley outlined results of his experiments using SAFMEDS with students and demonstrated that this process of instruction resulted in faster acquisition of fluency than other, similar flashcard procedures (Lindsley, 1996) with his work having been replicated many times over.Using SAFMEDS in Applied Behavior Analysis

So, how do you implement SAFMEDS?

First, get your materials together. Create your flashcards. (I typically use index cards where I’ve written the problem on one side and the correct response on the back.) Be sure to get a timer.

From there, the procedure is pretty straight forward:

  • You will have ALL the flashcards available and the student will respond to as many as he/she can in one minute.
  • The student can run the activity on their own, and will likely go much faster if they are the one turning the cards (Lindsley, 1996). The student looks at the card, provides the response, then puts the card in the correct or incorrect pile.
  • The cards should be shuffled between each fluency drill so that the student won’t learn the answers in order.

I’ve used actual flashcards, but also created SAFMEDS sets using different apps and websites. If you’re interested in learning more about implementing this simple strategy for building fluency, you should take a look here for more information.

REFERENCES

Lindsley, O. R. (1996). The four free-operant freedoms. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2), 199.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Tip of the Week: Common Mistakes in Implementing Reinforcement

Over the years, I’ve seen several behavior intervention plans written and implemented. Typically, these plans include reinforcement for the desirable behavior, but I see the same mistakes crop up again and again. Here are a few common mistakes in implementing reinforcement to look out for:Common Mistakes in Implementing Reinforcement

Fail to identify individual reinforcers. Hands down, the most common error I see is identifying specific activities or items as reinforcing. For instance, many people love gummy bears, but they make me want to puke. Presenting me with a gummy bear would not increase my future likelihood of engaging in the appropriate behavior! You must account for individual differences and conduct a preference assessment of your learner, then make a plan based on his or her preferences.

Fade reinforcement too quickly. Let’s say you’re working with a child named Harold who draws on the walls with crayon. You implement a reinforcement plan in which he earns praise and attention from his parent each time he draws on paper. The first few days it’s implemented, Harold’s rate of drawing on the wall greatly decreases. Everyone claims that his behavior is “fixed” and suddenly the plan for reinforcement is removed… and Harold begins drawing on the wall once more. I see this sort of pattern frequently (and have even caught myself doing it from time to time). After all, it can be easy to forget to reinforce positive behavior. To address this issue, make a clear plan for fading reinforcement, and use tools such as the MotivAider to help remind you to provide reinforcement for appropriate behavior.

Inconsistent with reinforcement plan. Harriet is writing consistently in a notebook, to the detriment of her interactions with peers. Her teachers implement a DRO, deciding to provide reinforcement for behavior other than the writing. However, the teachers didn’t notify all the adults working with her of the new plan, so Harriet’s behavior persists in certain environments, such as at recess, allowing her to miss multiple opportunities for more appropriate social interaction. To address this issue, make a clear outline of the environments in which the behavior is occurring and what adults are working in those environments. Ensure that all of the adults on that list are fully aware of the plan and kept abreast of any changes.

Don’t reinforce quickly enough. This one can be quite challenging, depending on the behavior and the environment. Let’s saying you’re working with a boy named Huck who curses often. You and your team devise a plan to reinforce appropriate language. You decide to offer him tokens that add up to free time at the end of the school day. However, sometimes as you are handing him a token for appropriate language, he curses again right before the token lands in his hand. Though it was unintentional, the cursing was actually reinforced here. Remember that reinforcement should be delivered as close to the desired behavior as possible. To address this issue, consider your environment and materials and make a plan to increase the speed of delivery.

Fail to make a plan to transfer to natural reinforcers. Ultimately, you don’t want any of these behaviors to change based solely on contrived reinforcement. Making a plan for reinforcement of appropriate behavior is essential, but your ultimate goal is to have the behavior be maintained by naturally occurring reinforcement. To address this issue, the first thing you need to do is identify what that naturally occurring reinforcement might be. For Harold, it might be having his artwork put up in a special place or sharing it with a show and tell. For Harriet it might be the interactions she has with peers on the playground. Once you have identified those reinforcers, you can create a plan for ensuring that the learner contacts those reinforcers over time. This might include pairing the naturally occurring reinforcers with the contrived reinforcers, then fading out the latter.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that reinforcement is not as simple as it seems. Taking the time to plan on the front end will help with long-term outcomes.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.