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.

Tip of the Week: What Is Reinforcement In ABA?

Sometimes, people hear about ABA and equate reinforcement with bribery. But the two are quite different, and it’s important to understand those differences. First, let’s look at bribery. The definition of bribery is “to persuade someone to act in one’s favor by a gift of money or other inducement.” The first thing to note is that bribery helps the person persuading, not the person completing the action. The second thing to note is that when we consider bribery with children, it’s often implemented when the child is already engaging in an inappropriate behavior. For instance, you might see a child throw himself on the floor in the grocery store and begin kicking and screaming. If the father says, “If you get up, I’ll buy the candy bar,” that would be considered bribery.

What Is Reinforcement In ABA
So what is reinforcement, then? Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately after the behavior that increases the future likelihood of the behavior. And reinforcement occurs all the time in real life! If I turn on a new radio station and it happens to be playing by favorite song, I am more likely to turn to that radio station again in the future. If I send a text to a friend and she responds immediately, I am more likely to text her again in the future. If my stomach is upset, then I drink a seltzer and it calms my stomach, I am more likely to drink seltzer in the future when my stomach hurts.

Where confusion often sets in is when we plan reinforcement to increase the behavior of an individual. It’s important to understand that the goal in ABA teaching should always be to move from planned reinforcement to unplanned or natural reinforcement. Think of it as jumpstarting a behavior that will benefit the individual. For instance, I have a student that would run into the street if you let go of his hand. Part of teaching procedure was to teach him to stop at the curb. This behavior is obviously a benefit to him and helps increase his safety. When he stopped at the curb, he earned a token. When he had earned five tokens, he earned access to the iPad. After he was successfully stopping at the curb, we taught him the next step was to reach for the adult’s hand. He no longer earned tokens for stopping at the curb, but he did earn tokens for completing both steps. We continued in this way until he was appropriately stopping at the curb, reaching for the adult’s hand, then waiting for the sign to say “Walk,” looking both ways, then walking into the street. It was a lengthy process, but planned reinforcement in the form of tokens was the best method for teaching him to be safe on the street.

A final note about reinforcement: it varies by individual. Some individuals are highly reinforced by chocolate or books or access to music. Others are highly reinforced by playing with a ball or going for a walk. In ABA, we don’t just walk in and give a kid M&M after M&M and hope their behavior magically changes. The first step is to conduct a preference assessment. A common one I use can be found here. This tool will help guide you to the most effective reinforcers for your learner and make your intervention more efficient.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.