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.

Regulating Sleep in Children with Autism

With the new school year in session, it’s especially important to regulate sleep in students. In this month’s ASAT feature, Lauren Schnell, MA, BCBA, offers insight on a variety of approaches parents can take to address sleep disturbances in their kids with autism. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!


I am a home program coordinator who works with a six-year old child diagnosed with autism. The parents are concerned because their child struggles at bedtime and will often wake up in the middle of the night to come into their room. The parents want their child to stay asleep and have tried everything to get him to stay in bed all night. What can I suggest they do to treat their child’s sleep behavior?

Answered by Lauren Schnell, MA, BCBA

Sleep disturbances in children with autism are a common concern for many parents. It has been estimated that approximately 25% of typical children between the ages of one and four struggle with nighttime wakings (Lozoff, Wolf, & Davis, 1985). For children with special needs, the number increases dramatically with upwards of 80% experiencing some type of sleep problems (Lamberg, 1994). Of those who frequently wake at night, the majority end up sleeping in their parent’s bed and the sleep problems often persist over time.

Regulating Sleep in Children with Autism

The good news is there are a variety of behavior analytic approaches found to be effective in addressing sleep disturbances in children with autism. An underlying premise of these approaches is that poor sleep patterns are learned, and, as such, can be unlearned.

Prior to implementing a behavioral sleep program, it is important to first rule out any medical reasons for the sleep disturbance, such as physical discomfort related to an illness. Discussions with a pediatrician should help to determine if the sleep issues may be associated with an underlying medical issue and if further testing or evaluation is warranted.

If the sleep issues are thought to be behavioral, the first step is to complete a sleep log to determine the extent of the problem and potential environmental factors that may be adversely affecting the child’s sleep. A sleep log outlines the time the individual is put into bed, the actual time he/she falls asleep, frequency of night wakings, and the duration of those awakenings. Additional information may be collected on any other behaviors which are observed during bedtime, such as tantrums during the bedtime routine or disruptive behavior during the night. Baseline data collection should continue until a consistent pattern of sleep (or lack thereof) or challenging behavior is apparent. This information can later be used to assess the effectiveness of the sleep intervention.

Some questions which may be helpful for parents in completing the sleep log are:

  • What time does the child go to bed?
  • What does the child do leading up to bedtime?
  • What else is going on in the home while the child is in bed which could be influencing his/her sleep?
  • What activities does the child engage in prior to falling asleep?
  • What time does the child awaken during the night as well as in the morning?
  • Does the child take naps during the day?

Based upon the results of the baseline data collected in the sleep log, a number of interventions may be considered. Below are several practical strategies which may be helpful to improve the sleep behavior of the child with autism.

Bedtime Routines
A bedtime routine can be helpful for the child, as it creates predictability in the sequence of activities leading up to bedtime. A written or visual schedule may be helpful in ensuring the routine is consistently followed. The schedule should outline activities preceding bedtime; for example, brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, saying goodnight to loved ones, and reading a bedtime story. The routine should begin at least 30-60 minutes prior to bed time. It is also recommended that parents eliminate all foods and drinks containing caffeine at least six hours prior to bed, and avoid rigorous activities during the later evening hours.

Initially, the child may need a high rate of positive reinforcement for following the routine. Eventually, the parent may consider providing the child with positive reinforcement the following morning if he/she successfully follows the nighttime activity schedule and remains in bed throughout the night. Such reinforcement might include earning access to a favorite breakfast cereal, a toy, or getting a sticker to put on a special chart upon waking (Mindell & Durand, 1993). Continue reading

Tip of the Week: Using Economy of Language in Your Teaching

Sometimes our learners don’t comply with instructions simply because they don’t fully understand what we are asking of them. At times, I find myself making the error of using too many words when I give directions, especially if I’m in a rush during a transition. For instance, I might say “Grab your shoes, put them on, and meet me by the door.” A few seconds later my learner meets me at the door, but with no shoes.

Using economy of language in your teaching. I may feel frustrated or irritated, but ultimately I realize my instructions are provided in a poor manner. I am at fault! It would have been more effective to point towards the shoes and say “Shoes on.” In his book Teach Like A Champion, Doug Lemov refers to this as Economy of Language, a phrase that essentially means the fewer words you use, the clearer your message. (It should be noted here that Teach Like A Champion is written for ALL teachers, not just special education teachers. This is a strategy that works across the board!) This is especially true when working with learners who struggle with listening comprehension, attention, or multi-step directions.

Here are a few suggestions to help you with economy of language:

Plan ahead. I actually write out instructions that I will be providing often and plan precisely how I will be giving them. I might plan a few variations, but, especially when working with young learners with autism, I want to provide lots of opportunities for success, then build to more complex instructions.
Consider hand signals. I often pair a hand signal with an instruction. For instance, one of my current students often sticks his fingers in his nose during instruction. I pair “Hands down” with a hand motion in which I move my hand from about shoulder-height to my lap (down). This is helpful because the learner also comprehends the signal, and I can begin providing the signal without the vocal statement. This allows me to provide instructions without interrupting the lesson.
One step at a time. Be aware of your learner’s listening comprehension and attending skills. If you notice that your learner is often only completing the first or the last thing you asked, this is a good indication that you provided too many instructions at the same time.
Avoid lengthy explanations. Sometimes I’ll hear an adult say something like “You need to hurry up and put your shoes on because your father is going to be here in a moment and we need to meet him outside and get in the car quickly so you’re not late for swim practice.” This is an easy trap to fall into, especially if vocalizing the explanation is helping you remember everything you need to do during a transition, but it may result in inaction from your learner.
Take a deep breath. If your learner is not responding correctly to instructions you’ve provided, step back, take a deep breath, and think about how to simplify the instruction.

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: Measure Group Behavior in the Classroom

Measure Group Behavior in the ClassroomMany classroom teachers are required to take data on the behavior of their students. However, this can feel like a daunting task given the many things teachers are trying to do simultaneously throughout the day! PLACHECK is a simple way to measure group behavior in the classroom for engagement or attention.

PLACHECK is short for Planned Activity Check. Let’s say that Ms. Esterman is using a partner activity for a math lesson for the first time in her fourth grade classroom. She wants to see if the kids remain engaged with the content during the partner activity. Here is how she can implement PLACHECK to collect data on engagement.

  1. Measure Group Behavior in the ClassroomSet a MotivAider for a predetermined interval (learn more about the MotivAider). The partner activity Ms. Esterman has organized will take a total of ten minutes. She decides to set the MotivAider for 2 minute intervals.
  2. At the start of the lesson, set the MotivAider to run and clip it to your waistband. For Ms. Esterman, the MotivAider will vibrate every two minutes to signal her to observe her students.
  3. When the MotivAider vibrates, collect tally data. Ms. Esterman feels the MotivAider vibrate, then quickly counts the number of students who are engaged in the partner activity.
  4. Continue to do this for each interval.
  5. Graph your data.

Ms. Esterman’s graph looks like this for her 24 students:

PLACHECK Graph 1

The next day, Ms. Esterman does a similar activity with her students, but uses an independent activity instead of a partner activity. She uses the same 5 steps to use PLACHECK to measure student engagement in the independent activity. Now she can easily compare engagement between the two types of activities. You can see both days graphed below:

PLACHECK Graph 2

When she compares the two days, she finds these results, and it allows her to make better decisions about what types of activities might work best for the individuals in her classroom. Here, it is clear that between these two activities, her students were more likely to be on task during partner work. However, Ms. Esterman would attain better results by taking more data.

PLACHECK is simple to implement. Ms. Esterman is able to collect this data in less than two minutes each day and can learn a lot from just that brief 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.

Tip of the Week: Things You Should Know About BCBAs

Things You Should Know About BCBAsMaybe you’ve never heard of Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), or you’ve heard of them frequently but never been provided an explanation of how a BCBA differs from an ABA therapist. Here are a few things you should know:

  • BCBAs are required to take extensive coursework in applied behavior analysis and complete 1500 hours of supervised work. Furthermore, they are required to take a difficult comprehensive exam at the end of their coursework and supervision hours. Once they have completed the hours and passed the exam, they are officially a BCBA.
  • BCBAs must complete 32 units of continuing education every two years. There is a requirement that some of these hours pertain to ethics, but the rest can be focused on skills such as addressing verbal behavior, feeding issues, aggressive behaviors, and more.
  • BCBAs are required to utilize evidence-based practice. A BCBA should be aware of current research in the field and should be able to easily reference the literature when encountering a difficult problem or working on an intervention.
  • One of my favorite parts of the ethical code for BCBAs is that “clients have a right to effective treatment.” Your BCBA should be taking data and implementing interventions that are effective in creating behavior change for clients. If an intervention is not working, then adjustments should be made.

The goal of Behavior Analyst Certification Board is to ensure appropriate training and accountability for behavior analysts.

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.

Tip of the Week: How to Maintain a Fast Pace of Instruction

How to Maintain a Fast Pace of InstructionThere is a common misconception that individuals with special needs require a slower pace of instruction. While they may require a slower pace through a curriculum, this does not mean that individual lessons should be taught at a slower pace. In fact, slowing the pace of instruction not only wastes precious instructional time, it may increase the occurrence of problem behaviors.

Higbee (2009) writes that “appropriately paced instruction helps students to maintain attention to the instructor and instructional materials. Though student attention can be lost when instruction is happening too rapidly, it is most often lost when the pace of instruction is not rapid enough” (p. 20).

So how can you maintain a fast pace of instruction that is appropriate for your student? Here are some things to consider:

  1. Prepare! Set out your materials in such a way that they are easy to access quickly. I keep all the mastered skills on index cards so I can easily add maintenance questions into instruction. Organization is often the simplest way to increase efficiency in your session.
  2. Take data. You want to increase attention and decrease problem behaviors. Try different paces of instruction and measure the behaviors you are wanting to change. For instance, if I have a student who is often grabbing for my shirt during a session, I may try a pace of instruction that includes 15 questions each minute, then try a pace of 20 questions per minute, another of 25 per minute. Next, I will compare the rates of grabbing for my shirt with each pace of instruction. Remember, these aren’t 15 questions for the target skill; some mastered skills will be intermixed.
  3. Record a session. By taking video of yourself working with a child, you may see opportunities for increasing efficiency on your own. You may also observe specific times at which problem behaviors tend to increase, then be able to target those specifically. For instance, perhaps problem behaviors occur when you turn to write data in a binder, but didn’t recognize that pattern until you watched a recording later.
  4. Use reinforcement effectively. Usually, pace of instruction in and of itself will not change behavior. Instead, pair it with reinforcement and be systematic with how you implement reinforcement. We’ve talked about reinforcement here on the blog a lot, so you can read about that in more detail here.
  5. If possible, get input from supervisors or the individual you are working with. Supervisors may be able to observe your session and provide insight on how to increase your pace of instruction. And the individual you are working with may be communicating that they are bored through misbehavior, stating “I’m bored,” or nonvocal behaviors such as yawning. This may be an indication that you need to provide more challenging material or increase the pace of instruction.

REFERENCES

Higbee, T. (2009). Establishing the prerequisites for normal language. In R. A. Rehfeldt, Y. Barnes-Holmes, & S.C. Hayes (Eds.), Derived relational responding applications for learners with autism and other developmental disabilities: A progressive guide to change (7-24). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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.