What are the types of reinforcement?
There are two types of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by the presentation of a stimulus and, as a result, the behavior is more likely to occur in the future. An example of positive reinforcement includes a child getting a treat for cleaning their room, which will increase the likelihood of the child cleaning in the future to gain access to the treat again. Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by the removal of an unwanted stimulus and, as a result, the behavior occurs more often in the future. An example of negative reinforcement would be a family watching a specific show; their child does not like to show so begins to cry which causes the family to turn off the show. As a result, the child is more likely to cry to get their family to turn off the show in the future.
In addition to the different types of reinforcement, there are also different kinds of reinforcers. Certain items, like food, sleep, and water, are primary reinforcers, meaning, you do not have to be taught to want these things. These reinforcers do not require any form of learning. Secondary reinforcers are items that when paired with other reinforcing items, take on reinforcing properties. These items are not essential for survival like the primary reinforcers but can still be used to increase the likelihood of behaviors occurring. Examples of secondary reinforcers include money, high fives, and hugs.
How can we use reinforcement effectively?
It is important to note that reinforcers vary greatly. What works for one learner may not work for the next, and what works one day may not work the next. However, there are certain factors to consider that can increase the likelihood of a reinforcer being effective. These factors include:
- Immediacy: The general rule of thumb is that a reinforcer should be delivered within 3-5 seconds after the behavior occurs for it to be effective. The faster a reinforcer is delivered, the better. The longer you wait between the occurrence of the behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer, the less likely it is to have a lasting impact on behavior.
- Quality: The type of reinforcement used will affect how likely behavior is to occur in the future. Where a small child may be willing to work for simple plastic toy, older children may not find this kind of toy as motivating. It is important to consider each child’s needs individually to make sure you are using the right kind of reinforcement to keep them motivated and engaged.
- Quantity: The amount of reinforcement provided can affect how likely the behavior is to occur in the future. Where one learner may be willing to work for a single M&M, another may not. It is important to consider each learners needs individually to make sure you are using the right amount of reinforcement to keep them motivated and engaged.
- Response Effort: The amount of effort required to gain access to reinforcement also plays a role in how effective a reinforcer will be. If the learner must perform too many/complex tasks to gain access to the reinforcer, this will affect how likely they are to engage in the behavior in the future. It is important to gauge the response effort for each learner individually, so they do not become discouraged or disinterested in the task at hand
- Consistency: For reinforcement to be effective, it must be delivered consistently, especially when teaching new behaviors. If the reinforcement is not delivered consistently, it will delay the acquisition of new skills/behaviors.
How do I choose the best reinforcement?
It is important to remember that just because the learner may like something, it does not mean they are willing to work for it. For an item to be considered reinforcing, it must be able to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring. A learner may like chocolate, but when offered as incentive to clean their room, if they do not engage in the cleaning behavior, then the chocolate cannot be considered a reinforcer.
The best way to determine potential reinforcers is by using preference assessments. Preference assessments can be conducted in various ways. For learners that are verbal and able to communicate effectively, they can tell you what they are willing to work for. Preferences can also be assessed by observing the learner to see what they gravitate towards or interact with frequently during a specific time.
For learners that have difficulty communicating, more structured preference assessments can be used. These can be administered by a trained ABA professional to help assess different items that can serve as reinforcement.
Tashini Ramdeo, MA, BCBA, LBA