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!

ABA Journal Club #7: A Response from Dr. Val Demiri PhD, BCBA-D, LBA

If you have ever walked into a restaurant and looked at a menu of food options, you more than likely understand what it is like to be presented with a choice of food reinforcers such as the burger with cheese and pickles vs. the burger with no cheese or the burger with no pickles or cheese. The July journal club article selected by Dr. Blanco and written by Sran and Borrero (2010), highlights an important concept – that even when rules about choice options are not presented, such as what the experimenters did with typical preschoolers, choices were found to be reinforcing and led to increased academic behaviors. That is, having the opportunity to make choices can make a difference in both the behaviors you target to increase or decrease as well as the rewards that function as reinforcement. In general, there is no doubt that choices are a good thing. 

To dig a little deeper, the idea of varied choice vs. no choice is an interesting one.  Anecdotally and from the research available on choice, having choices is typically viewed as a good circumstance to be in. Research has found that choice opportunities can decrease problem behaviors (Foxx & Garito, 2007; Vaughn & Horner, 1995), increase participation (Harding, Wacker, Berg, Baretto & Rankin, 2002) and increase performance (Moes, 1998) across a variety of tasks.   

As I read through Sran and Borrero (2010) I also reflected on some clinical observations I have noticed over the years and came up with this question: Is there ever too much to choose from and is this condition aversive for some? That is, can choices be overwhelming? I have wondered if choice making is on a continuum of some sort in which there may be an optimum or ideal number of choices before the pendulum swings in an undesired direction causing anxiety, fear, and indecision? The experience of “too many choices” can be overwhelming for some and not desirable at all. For example, please do not ask me to go choose some shade of blue for the living room walls! There are too many, I cannot choose. Can having too many choices lead to indecision? Skinner, in his seminal book, Science and Human Behavior (1953) discussed the idea of “indecision” as being an aversive condition that we want to escape by engaging in making a decision.  Briefly, Skinner (1953) indicated that once a decision is made, one commits to choosing and we are no longer struggling with indecision, thus the behavior of deciding is reinforced, but getting there can be tumultuous. 

Getting back to ABA and our work with individuals who benefit from choices, we must remember that we need to provide choice regularly and it is likely that too many options are probably not helpful. When working with individuals in special education and other settings, providing choices for the following have been known to be exceptionally helpful:

  1. work order
  2. tasks to be performed,
  3. foods to be eaten,
  4. type of work to be completed,
  5. amount of work to be completed and
  6. choice of where one can work,

Also important to understand is that choices can be presented via visual picture presentations, text and other selection mechanisms such as through Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices (AAC). If you are going to provide choices, definitely consider preference assessments as these too are essentially choices of some sort that are likely to increase the overall satisfaction of the individuals you work with.   

Carter, C. M. (2001). Using choice with game play to increase language skills and interactive behaviors in children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 3(3), 131‐151.

Foxx, R. M., & Garito, J. (2007). The long‐term successful treatment of the very severe behaviors of a preadolescent with autism. Behavioral Interventions: Special Issue: The Treatment and Assessment of the Severe Behavior of Individuals with Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 22, 69‐82.

Harding, J. W., Wacker, D. P., Berg, W. K., Barretto, A., & Rankin, B. (2002). Assessment and treatment of severe behavior problems using choice‐making procedures. Education & Treatment of Children, 25, 26‐46.

Moes, D. R. (1998). Integrating choice‐making opportunities within teacher‐assigned academic tasks to facilitate the performance of children with autism. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 23, 319‐328.

Skinner, B.F. (1953).  Science and human behavior. New York: The Macmillan Company. ISBN 0029290406

Vaughn, B., & Horner, R. H. (1995). Effects of concrete versus verbal choice systems on problem behavior. AAC: Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 11,


About The Author

Dr. Demiri received her doctorate in Clinical and School Psychology from Hofstra University in 2004 and her Board Certification in Behavior Analysis (BCBA) from Rutgers University in 2005. She currently serves as an adjunct professor at Endicott College in the Van Loan School of Graduate & Professional Studies and she is the district-wide behavior specialist at Hopewell Valley Regional School District in New Jersey. Previously she served as the Assistant Director of Outreach Services at the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where she spearheaded the Early Intervention Program. Her professional interests include diagnostic assessments, language and social skills development in individuals with autism spectrum disorders as well as international dissemination of Applied Behavior Analysis. She has presented on Applied Behavior Analysis and autism locally, nationally and internationally. Val is the co-author of the book, Jumpstarting Communication Skills in Children with Autism: A Parent’s Guide to Applied Verbal Behavior: Woodbine House.

Implementing the Intervention…Even When Things are Going Well

Recently I was working with a parent who was using a TimeTimer with her son to help him recognize when it was time to get ready for bed. Our plan was to start the timer every night while he was engaged in an activity, show him the timer and have him repeat how many minutes left, then have him tell his mom when the timer went off. For the first couple of weeks, this plan worked beautifully. The boy could see the time elapsing, brought the timer to his mother when it went off, and then started the process to get ready for bed without engaging in tantrum behaviors.

I went in for a parent training session after a month of the intervention and the boy’s mother informed me the timer just wasn’t working any more. As we started talking, I realized that the mother had drifted from our original plan in a way that is quite common. As her son experienced success, she used the timer less frequently. Then, if he was struggling, she would introduce the timer. In effect, she started only using the timer when he was misbehaving, instead of using it as a consistent tool to help him with the bedtime routine.

This type of procedural drift (when there is an unintentional or unplanned change in the procedure outlined for the intervention) is very common for parents, teachers, and ABA therapists. It’s important to understand this type of drift so it can be corrected when it occurs.

Here are a few things to remember when implementing an intervention:

• First, any intervention should include a clear plan for fading the intervention. In the example above, the TimeTimer was an appropriate tool for this particular child, who was only four years old. But we don’t want him to rely on the timer for the duration of childhood! A plan should include how to fade the intervention with specific steps and specific requirements for mastery.

• The use of the TimeTimer is considered an antecedent intervention. This means that we are implementing a change in the environment prior to any problem behaviors to help the child contact reinforcement and experience success. Antecedent interventions should be implemented consistently as part of a routine, not ONLY when a problem behavior occurs. If it is only implemented when the problem behavior occurs, it is no longer an antecedent intervention.

• If we implement a tool (like the TimeTimer) only when problem behavior occurs, it’s possible the tool will become aversive to the child and possibly result in an increased magnitude of the problem behavior.

• Consider using tools for the people implementing to intervention to remind them of the specific steps. For example, you might create a video model and instruct the parent (or other adult implementing the intervention) to watch it every couple days. Or you might post the steps in a clear space to be reviewed regularly.

• Finally, we have to remember that a couple of good days in a row without any instances of problem behavior does not mean that the problem is solved. This is why the first step outlined above is so important. We want to teach the child replacement behaviors and give them lots of opportunities to be successful with it.

 

Ultimately, we were able to re-implement the procedure with this parent and see more continued success with this particular case. We also decided to post the steps to the intervention on the back of the TimeTimer for easy review on a daily basis.

However, in some cases, you might have to create an entirely new intervention using different tools. The goal is to be clear about the steps of the intervention, and to maintain those steps when implementing the intervention.


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.

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:

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, 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.

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:

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, 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.

Positive Reinforcement Strategies For Bedtime

“Dear Behavior BFF, bedtime is the absolute worst time of day. I dread putting my kids to bed because they draw everything out with so much drama! They argue, complain, cry, you name it! Why is it so hard? Can you help us?”

Unfortunately, you are not alone in this one. Bedtime can be hard for so many kids and parents (me included!).

We could spend all day guessing why our kiddos fight going to bed. Do they have FOMO (fear of missing out) on what parents do after they go to bed? Are they not tired enough? Are they too tired? Are their pajamas truly itchy? Is there really a scary shadow of a monster on the wall? But those questions don’t guide us to a solution to deal with this daily problem.

Instead- let’s look at it from a solution-based perspective. What would a solution look like for you? What behaviors are you looking to increase at bedtime?

Sample target behaviors (the things you are trying to get your kids to do MORE of):

  • Finish pre-bed routines with minimal reminders
  • Follow directions with 1 or 2 reminders
  • Use a quiet voice
  • Only come out of your room 1 time after bedtime
  • Ask nicely for things
  • Read or play quietly if you aren’t ready to go to sleep

So what can we do to increase these behaviors in our homes each evening? Try some evidence-based positive reinforcement strategies!

Premack principle: FIRST (do the unpreferred task), THEN (get a reinforcer).

The FIRST needs to be clear and direct. Tell your child what the target behavior is. What CAN they do right now to earn reinforcement? The THEN needs to be worth it for your child. Choose a quality reinforcer or better yet- let your kiddo(s) choose!

  • FIRST use a quiet voice at bedtime, THEN we can sing a song together.
  • FIRST stay in your room until 7am, THEN you can watch a TV show in the morning.
  • FIRST follow directions at bedtime, THEN choose a toy to take to bed with you.

Token Economy: A structured reinforcement system where your child earns tokens (stickers, marbles, points) to exchange for a big reinforcer when enough have been earned. Steps to using a token economy to make bedtime easier may include the following:

  1. Choose specific target behaviors. Tell your child 1-3 things they CAN and should do at bedtime instead of problem behavior.
  2. Give the token (sticker on a sticker chart, marble in a marble jar, points on a point sheet, etc) every time your child does these desired bedtime behaviors.
  3. When they reach their goal- let them use their tokens to ‘buy’ the big reinforcer!

To be successful, be consistent. Give a token every time your kiddo does one of the desired behaviors. Be clear- make sure your children know what the desired behaviors are. Don’t set the goal too high to start with. Help your children to be successful to get them on board with the plan!

No matter what evidence-based strategy you choose, be consistent with it. Give reinforcement as immediately as possible. Catch your children being good and give high-quality reinforcers!

References

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis.

Homme, L. E., Debaca, P. C., Devine, J. V., Steinhorst, R., & Rickert, E. J. (1963). Use of the Premack principle in controlling the behavior of nursery school children. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 15(3), 431-445.

Kazdin, A. E. (Ed.). (1977). The token economy: A review and evaluation. Plenum Publishing Corporation.

Knapp, T. J. (1976). The Premack principle in human experimental and applied settings. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 14(2), 133-147.

This piece originally appeared on www.bSci21.com. 


About The Author 

Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA, is the author of Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity. As a Behavior Analyst and a mom of two little girls, she wanted to share behavior analysis with a population who could really use it- parents!

Leanne’s writing can be found in Parenting with Science and Parenting with ABA as well as a few other sites. She is a monthly contributor to bSci21.com , guest host for the Dr. Kim Live show, and has contributed to other websites as well.

Leanne has worked with children with disabilities for over 10 years. She earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Texas A&M University.  She also completed ABA coursework through the University of North Texas before earning her BCBA certification in 2011. Leanne has worked as a special educator of both elementary and high school self-contained, inclusion, general education, and resource settings.

Leanne also has managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has  extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting.

Leanne is now located in Dallas, Texas and is available for: distance BCBA and BCaBA supervision, parent training, speaking opportunities, and consultation. She can be reached via Facebook or at Lpagebcba@gmail.com.

Why All Parents Should Use Token Economies

 

As parents, we want our kids to want to have good behavior. They should want to behave because it’s the right thing to do, right? Yeah right. This is why all parents should use token economies.

Have you met a 3 year old with an innate desire to good for this world? It’s in there somewhere but at age 3, it’s more like threenager-ville. Little humans do what gets them what they want. They behavior in a certain way to achieve a certain outcome.

A threenager is likely to tantrum to get access to their favorite toy, TV show, candy, a left shoe they can see on the other side of the room — you name it. They are acting a certain way (tantrum) to achieve a certain outcome (getting whatever they want).

What can we do about this? Is there any way to teach them to behave?! Well, we can make sure they get what they want not by having a tantrum, but by engaging in desired behaviors.

We can use positive reinforcement in a more structured and specific way than just handing out praise and rewards willy-nilly.

The definition of a token economy is: a behavior change system consisting of three major components: (a) a specified list of target behaviors; (b) tokens or points that participants receive for emitting the target behaviors; and (c) a menu of backup reinforcer items.

Token economies can possibly take the form of sticker charts, chore charts, marble jars, etc. You need a physical token that your child can earn when they engage in the desired behavior. You do NOT need to go out and spend $50 at the nearest school supply store making a big fancy chart. You can draw 5 circles on a piece of paper. When they do the desired behavior, draw a check mark in the circle. Done. Grab that piece of junk mail off the kitchen counter and a half-eaten, I mean half-broken, crayon.

The next step is to define the behaviors. Again, you don’t need a big fancy dictionary. Just pick one to three behaviors that will earn the tokens. You need your Little to understand this so it can’t be a big grown up idea like ‘being responsible’ or ‘showing respect’. What does that mean to a Little? Be specific. You earn a token for: (1) following instructions without yelling; (2) eating 5 bites of every food Mom puts in front of you; and (3) putting on your shoes when instructed to.

Pick your battles. You may have a list of 20+ things your Little could stand to improve. I’m pretty sure I have a list of 20+ things to put myself on a token economy. Let’s prioritize and make it understandable by the kiddo.

Lastly — what can they earn with these tokens? You can give choices before earning and they can decide at the beginning or at the end. You can make a fancy menu of reinforcers — Chuck E Cheese is the perfect example of this. This many tickets = this super awesome toy.

Or, you can just say: get all the stickers, get 5 check marks, get 10 marbles and earn a fun activity. You can pick from: extra screen time, trip to the library, a new toy from the dollar spot, etc.

All of that in short form:

  1. Pick 1-3 behaviors and make sure your Little understands what they are.
  2. Have an actual token they can earn and set a goal.
  3. Provide the reward when they reach that goal. Make it a big deal!

Tips:

  • When you first start out, set the goal low. If it’s too hard to achieve, that won’t motivate anyone, especially a Little who is struggling with those behaviors to begin with.
  • Over time, raise the goal. Make the reward bigger for a bigger goal, smaller for a smaller goal. Play with it to see what is successful for your Little and doable for you in your busy day.
  • Make every token earned a big deal — lots of praise and excitement.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time and money setting up a fancy system. Like all things we do as parents — as soon as we get a good system down, our Little changes things up on us and we have to be flexible. My own daughter sees a strip of printer paper and thinks I’ve made her a new sticker chart. That’s how fancy sticker charts are at my house!
  • Be creative!
    • My aunt gave this idea from her life: She had a picture of a poodle and her daughter glued cotton balls on it. When she filled the picture, they actually got the poodle!
    • My sister let her oldest pick out his marbles for a marble jar on a special shopping trip to the craft store (less than $5 — don’t go overboard, folks!). That helped him buy into the process form the get go.
    • Cut up a picture of the prize like a puzzle. They get a puzzle piece as a token. The finished puzzle earns the prize!
    • Look in the app store. Seriously — there are many apps for reward charts.
    • Google ‘behavior chart’. You’ll find a gazillion cute templates if that’s what you’re into — cutesy.
    • I once made a necklace for a student who was really into jewelry. It was a laminated sticker chart necklace and she loved it.

One last thought: Someday you will find that things are going well and the token economy goes by the wayside. Remember it when a new problem behavior crops up and you are once again at your wit’s end. Start over. Pick new behaviors, new rewards, same system.

Don’t take my word for it — this is just the tip of the iceberg in behavior analytic research supporting token economies.

If you’re not a crafty person, you can always check out our reward chart here

Citations:
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 560-567). Columbus: Pearson.

Kazdin, A. E. (Ed.). (1977). The token economy: A review and evaluation. Plenum Publishing Corporation.

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis15(3), 431-445.

Skinner, B. F., Ferster, C. B., & Ferster, C. B. (1997). Schedules of reinforcement. Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group.

Reitman, D., Murphy, M. A., Hupp, S. D., & O’Callaghan, P. M. (2004). Behavior change and perceptions of change: Evaluating the effectiveness of a token economy. Child & Family Behavior Therapy26(2), 17-36.


Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA
 has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at lpagebcba@gmail.com.

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:

 

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: 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.

Tip of the Week: Considerations for Parents on Grounding Kids

Many parents choose to “ground” their kids when they make poor decisions. Maybe they lose access to video games for a week, or can’t watch TV for a month. Grounding in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Here are a few considerations:

  • If you keep grounding your kid for the same behavior, then grounding is not changing the behavior. Sometimes grounding your child is a default response, but if it’s not working, you might want to consider some other options. You can take a look back at our series on
    differential reinforcement
    or our post on noncontingent reinforcement.
  • When possible, the consequence should be connected to the behavior. If your child throws a controller, then not having access to video games makes great sense. However if video games are taken away for any infraction, it may not be the most logical punishment and over time, it may even backfire. If the child is losing video games for everything, then he/she might stop trying to earn video games at all.

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