Recently I have noticed a common theme among both educators and parents: an overall misconception of what reinforcement is. I am often called to classrooms to help with student behaviors and the staff will say something like... “Well, he gets a reinforcer whenever he displays appropriate behavior.” This usually means that the student is getting a token, an edible, access to a toy, etc. after a certain task is completed or when a set amount of time has passed with appropriate behaviors. My follow-up question to the staff is then, “is the appropriate behavior increasing?” Since I am being called there to assist in the first place, usually the answer is no!
So, when I hear that answer, I know that the appropriate behaviors are not truly being reinforced. Whatever that student is getting in response to the appropriate behavior is not a reinforcer. What is it then? Well... it’s probably something the student likes but there is a big difference between what a child likes and what will reinforce their behaviors.
So… what exactly is a reinforcer? A reinforcer is something that follows a behavior that will make that specific behavior occur more frequently in the future. It is something that a child will actually work to get access to. It is something that will change behaviors! So what is the difference between something someone likes and a reinforcer? Well, let me share an example. I really love coffee and Diet Pepsi. They are honestly a staple of my day...but I would not put in an 8 hour day for some coffee and Diet Pepsi! Maybe I would complete a simple 20 minute task for a Diet Pepsi, like 'hey, fill out this survey and I'll give you a Diet Pepsi,' but I sure wouldn’t write a 5 page report for it! You have to consider the amount of effort that has to be put in, and if it will be worth it to the person, even if its for a reward they seem to love!
Reinforcers can vary from child to child and person to person. It can include a wide range of items, from activities to attention (both positive and negative!) to toys, etc. Reinforcement surrounds us everywhere. We go to work so that we can receive a paycheck and we eat those crunchy chips because of how great they taste. Stores reinforce us for shopping by giving us reward points for our purchases... we then return to the same store to use those reward points (increasing our shopping behavior!), Workplaces often offer bonuses for excellent performance, we reward our children for doing chores around the house, etc. As you can see the list goes on and on!
So how do you determine what will reinforce a behavior? Let the child help you! Observe them. Play with them! What do they gravitate to? What are they asking for? What makes them laugh? What makes them jump up and down with excitement? You learn through this play and observation (and this is also a great time to work on pairing, making yourself a valuable reinforcer!). In addition to this, talk to people in their lives including family and classroom staff. You never know what the other has discovered during their time with the child. Once you have your ideas, test them out! Bring out those toys and activities and see what the child really seems to enjoy. What do they interact with the longest?
One thing to keep in mind is that you have to make sure to keep up with your child's changing motivation and preferences. These can both change from day to day, from morning to afternoon, sometimes from minute to minute! For example, if a child just had unlimited access to playing on the IPAD for the last 45 minutes, they are going to be much less motivated to participate with you in order to access that IPAD again (making that IPAD temporarily less valuable of a reinforcer). If a child just had a big lunch and dessert, they will be much less motivated by different edible items. Remember, just like motivation changes, preferences change over time as well. Some kiddos love the same sensory toy for months, others lose interest within a couple of minutes. Be ready to go with a variety of possibilities to engage your child!