Basic Principles of Reinforcers

Changing Behavior by the effective use of reinforcers

Many people, including teachers, principals and caseworks in the social services field do not understand the basic concepts of changing behavior by the effective use of reinforcers.

Over the last 5 decades as a consultant to teachers,  and social service workers, I have been told time and again, “I tried Behavior Modification, but it didn’t work.” There are many possible reasons that it did not work, but the person using the program usually did not know what they were doing because they were never trained in behavioral intervention. If I ever wanted to find out how much they knew, I simply asked to review their data from the program with them. They almost never kept any. They flew blind until they hit the wall, then blamed the procedure. The rule is that no data equals no program.

Tim Swarz has written a concise synopsis that could serve to either ignite your curiosity to learn more or to review some of what you already know.

1. They must be reinforcing
Your child must want the item or opportunity enough to change his behavior to get it.

2. Pairing reinforcers is important.
Always pair a tangible reinforcer with praise.  When you begin fading, you will decrease the frequency of the tangible item, but continue giving praise freely.

3. Rotate the reinforcers frequently.
If a single reinforcer is used over and over without change, the child will become satiated and “get enough” of it.  It will lose power and become ineffective.

4. Give ONLY when earned and immediately.
If a preferred item or activity is not given contingently, it will be extremely hard to build a relationship between targeted behaviors and reinforcers. Giving it immediately and only when earned teaches this relationship. This means that you may not give the reinforcer any other time or under any other conditions. Children have actually said to me, “It doesn’t matter if I don’t get it, I can play with it at home.”

 5. Fade- gradually- over time.
Over time, the form of reinforcement and how often it is given should change.  One popular method to change to is a token economy.  I have clients that have created real economies and use it to teach addition, subtraction, counting money, and personal finance. This change allows you increase the amount of time between earning and receiving the reinforcer.  When you do this, keep in mind that whatever you are doing should be faded slowly over time and eventually look more like the real life.

6. Be consistent.
While reinforcement schedules are dense at the beginning they need to change. In ABA therapy, we try to make the contrived learning environment, over time, more like the natural environment that the child lives in.  This helps the child to generalize the skills.  Some skills can be completely taught in the natural environment, and that is my preference.  The more consistent everyone is in the use of reinforcers, the more consistent the child will be in giving the desired responses.

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