Using Reinforcers

In this video, we will be exploring what reinforcement is and how to figure out what your child finds reinforcing.

In the simplest terms, reinforcement is providing or removing something from your child because he or she engaged in a particular behavior, and in the future, that behavior is more likely to occur. In this lesson, we will discuss mostly positive reinforcement, or adding something in order to see a behavior increase.
You may already have a good idea of items or activities that your child enjoys, and this is a good place to start when trying to determine reinforcers for your child's desired behaviors. Does your child always gravitate toward a certain stuffed animal? Do they enjoy playing with bubbles or watching a particular cartoon? Maybe they can't get enough of playing with your iPad like most children these days. These items can be used to increase the behaviors you would like to see, such as independent living skills or appropriate alternatives to problem behaviors.

Here is something important to consider: Would you want to play the same game, over and over every day? Maybe you just played with friends for hours, and you don't want to play anymore. If someone offered to play that game with you right now for completing a task, would you? Probably not! And your child is no different! Our preferences change and we become satiated or bored over time, so it is important to conduct a preference assessment and then reserve the most preferred item for only when training new skills or teaching alternatives to problem behavior.
So, what is a preference assessment? Essentially, you want to find out which items or activities your child would prefer to engage with at the time of the assessment. There are several ways to do this, and they will vary depending on your child's level of functioning. We will provide some general guidelines for different functional levels. Start by gathering a few items your child engages with regularly, or items you think they may enjoy. Focus on either toys and activities or foods, but try to not combine these (food is almost always preferred over items).
If your child is lower functioning and unable to focus on more than one item at a time, you may be able to determine some preferred items by presenting items to them and seeing whether they approach the item or not, and how long they engage with it. Present multiple items, individually, and record which item the child approaches and how long they engage with it. After you have presented them each one time, present them in a random order again and record the number of times an item is approached and duration of engagement. The item that is selected most and engaged with for the longest duration over time may give you a good idea of what your child prefers.
If your child cannot focus on more than a couple items, a paired-choice preference assessment may be for you. In this method, you present pairs of items together, and allow the child to choose one and play with it for a couple minutes. Remove the unselected item and record which items are selected. Pair each item with the other items, and after each presentation, continue to record which items are selected. After every item has been presented with all other items, count up the number of times each item wasselected. The more the item was chosen, the more likely you may be able to use this as a potential reinforcer.

For individuals who are able to focus on multiple items, you can conduct a multiple choice preference assessment. Arrange all of the items in front of the child and ask them to pick one. When they choose, remove the other items, write down the selection and allow the child to engage with the object. After a couple minutes, retrieve the item from the child, and re-present the unchosen items and ask them to pick again. Repeat this until all items have been chosen. This method will give you a ranking of multiple items in addition to providing potential reinforcers.
While these methods seem complicated at first, they get easier the more you practice them, so keep trying! Practice with a loved one if you'd like to hone your skills before trying with your child.

So now that you know some items that your child prefers, what's next? You should not allow your child to access the highest ranked item (or very similar items) freely, nor should it ever be given when the child is engaging in any problem behavior. Make sure they do not have free access to the item when they are with others, such as family members or at school. You want to keep the value of the item high! Think of these preferred items as you would think of money: if you had a lot of money all the time, you would probably not be interested in working for a dollar. Keep the value of your preferred items high!
Now it's time to answer the important question: will this preferred item act as a reinforcer? There is a difference! We may prefer an item, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will complete work for them. Now you need to test it: ask your child to complete a relatively simple task that you have seen them complete in the past but is not necessarily preferred, such as stacking cups or sorting objects. Help them if needed by using hand-over-hand guidance. Provide the preferred item upon completion and allow them to engage with it.

Then ask them to complete the task again. Do they complete the task more quickly? More independently? If you ask again, will they continue to work for the item, or complete more work for the item (for example, stack the cups two or three times before getting access to the item)? You have discovered a reinforcer!
A final consideration in determining preferences and reinforcers is that preferences change over time. You should conduct a preference assessment prior to teaching a new skill to maximize your ability to provide highly valuable reinforcement and teach skills efficiently and effectively.