• Positively Reinforcing

    Posted by Katie Justice on 1/15/2021 7:00:00 AM

    Throughout the course of history there has been a shift in the approach to dealing with problem behaviors within the school setting.  There have been advances in specific supports such as tiered level interventions, specifically designed instruction, behavior interventions/supports, functional behavioral assessments, trauma informed care, understanding lagging skills, etc.  These supports take an individualized approach to promoting the most growth possible within the learning environment.  One particular intervention that has increased within the school setting is the use of positive reinforcement.  

    Positive reinforcement is a pretty broad statement that is used often throughout the school setting, but what exactly is positive reinforcement?  Over the years, I have heard teacher’s who are seeking support with students say, “I have tried every reinforcement, but it isn’t helping at all!”.  By definition,  “positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus and, as a result, occurs more often in the future (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007, pg. 36)”.  Therefore, if we are not seeing an increase in the desired behavior, we have not found something that is truly reinforcing or we are not utilizing it effectively.

    Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) discuss nine guidelines for applying positive reinforcement effectively. In this article we will focus on the first four guidelines starting with setting an easily achievable beginning criterion for gaining the reinforcement. In order to teach the contingency that the expected behavior equals access to the reinforcer as well as to promote success, it is important to provide the reinforcement at higher rates when initially working on the new skill. A common mistake seen is that the student has a reinforcement schedule, but they are required to go too long or endure too many difficult tasks or requests before gaining access to the reinforcement.  The initial length of time should be “higher than the child’s average baseline performance and lower than or equal to his best performance during baseline (Heward, 1980, pg 7)”.  For example, if the student can complete independent work at his desk from a range of 2 minutes - 14 minutes, and averages 6 minutes, the initial length of time required before receiving the reinforcer would be between 7-14 minutes.  This keeps the goal attainable, while still requiring more than the student average during baseline.  As they continue to make success for longer lengths of time, that criterion will continue to increase.

    The second guideline for effective reinforcement is the use of high quality reinforcers.  The quality and magnitude of the reinforcement should match the difficulty and/or length of time of the tasks.  Quality reinforcers also need to be highly preferred items/activities.  A way to assess preferred items/activities can be done through preference assessments such as force-choice inventories (interview) or multi-stimulus preference assessments (observation) Within a multi-stimulus preference assessment, data is collected on which items/activities are chosen, what order they are chosen, and how long they are utilized. This is very important so that we maintain available access to these items and we are able to follow their highest motivators. Examples of preference assessment data collection and interviews are below.

    Along with having high quality reinforcers, it is important to vary the use of reinforcers in order for them to maintain their potency.  “Presenting an overabundance of a specific reinforcer is likely to diminish the momentary effectiveness of the reinforcer due to satiation (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2007, pg. 286)”.  This can be minimized by providing a variety of different reinforcers and reserving the highest preferred items/activities for those longer and more difficult expected behaviors/tasks.  The other benefit of varying items/activities, is that it allows the learner to expand their repertoire of preferred stimuli that can serve as reinforcers.  These reinforcers can be provided visually on a menu board so that the learner can see which items are available, and how many times a certain item might be available.

    Lastly, Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007), discuss the importance of using direct, rather than indirect reinforcement contingencies (pg. 286).  A direct contingency means that the learner would have access to the reinforcers directly after completing the response as opposed to receiving it from an individual.  This aspect of reinforcement is specifically beneficial for “learners with limited behavioral repertoires (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2007, pg. 286)”.  An example of this would be putting an M&M in a container and giving the request to open the container.  The learner would receive the M&M directly once the task is complete, as opposed to receiving the M&M after the task is completed from the adult.  The immediacy and direct access give a correspondence that the completion of the task is what and why they received the reinforcer.

    Reinforcement is highly effective when given systematically and closely following the learners motivation.  Within this article we discussed four key aspects related to effective reinforcement, specifically concerning the teaching of contingencies, identifying effective reinforcers, and the presentation of these reinforcers.  In the next article we will discuss how to continue to expand the duration/difficulty of expectations before receiving reinforcement and the way in which to shift from more external reinforcement to naturally occurring and internal reinforcement.

    Preference Assessment/Force-choice Interviews:





    Cooper, John O., et al. (2007) Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill.

    Heward, W.L. (1980). A formula for individualizing initial criteria for reinforcement. Exceptional Teacher.

    Katie Justice  
    Katie Justice, BCBA

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  • Waiting Protocol

    Posted by Katie Justice on 10/23/2020 7:00:00 AM

    Returning back to our typical routine after 5 months has been quite an adjustment for all of us.   It is likely true that instant gratification was much more easily accessible when we were quarantined at home during this time. Difficulty with waiting for preferred items/activities has been a common concern that has been shared. Many of our learners have been able to have access to their preferred items freely, therefore returning back to the school setting and requiring work to be completed first can be a difficult transition.  Below is an example of a waiting protocol.  This example is for an early learner who is unable to wait for more than a few seconds before engaging in maladaptive behaviors, but this can also be utilized with learners who have a higher tolerance with waiting.  The time can be adjusted based on their ability to maintain before engaging in those maladaptive behaviors.

    1. Staff can utilize a timer or counting in your head.
    2. Best to practice waiting with highly preferred items/activities.
    3. Assess their current level of waiting for specific items/activities by requiring them to wait and see how long they can before engaging in maladaptive behaviors.
    4. To promote successful waiting, reinforce by giving the item/activity just before they typically engage in maladaptive behavior to gain access to the item.  For example, if they can successfully wait 1 minute before engaging in maladaptive behavior, give them access to the item every 45 seconds to promote appropriate waiting. If they can successfully wait 10 seconds, give access to the item every 5-7 seconds.
    5. Once they have consistently waited without engaging in maladaptive behavior for 3 consecutive trials, slowly increase the amount of time they need to wait before gaining access to the item/activity.
    6. Provide behavior specific demands and praise.  For example, when removing the item, say things such as, “Let’s wait!”, and when returning the item, “Great job, waiting!”
    7. This can be practiced with a wait visual and/or signs. 
    8. If they immediately engage in maladaptive behaviors and cannot successfully wait for any length of time, utilize a visual timer for 3-5 seconds.  Once the timer goes off, immediately provide access to the item/activity, despite engaging in maladaptive behaviors. 
    9. Repeat without increasing the interval until they are able to sit for that time without engaging in maladaptive behaviors.  The goal is that they will learn that once they hear the timer they will receive the item/activity, and that it is not based off of the behavior they are engaging in at the time.  
    10. Once they are able to wait appropriately, begin the process as outlined above to increase the interval he waits.
    11. Depending on the student’s ability to generalize, it might be necessary to start at the beginning smaller intervals for each new item/activity they are learning how to wait for.  Other’s might be able to generalize the concept and not need different teaching trials for different items/activities. 

    Katie Justice  
    Katie Justice, BCBA

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  • Visual Schedules

    Posted by Katie Justice on 8/21/2020 7:00:00 AM

    If you’re anything like me, it has been quite an adjustment getting back into the swing of things after having such a long time away from routines and structure of normal everyday life.  I didn’t realize how adjusted I had become to the different pace of life.  Though it feels good to be back to “normal” (the new normal), I had to retrain myself on organizing my day to be the most productive I could be.  One of the key components, for me, was to set my daily schedule so I could relieve some stress by setting goals for what I wanted to accomplish and have some predictability of what my day was going to look like.  Just as scheduling out our days is key, it is incredibly important for our students as well.  Transitioning from a more unstructured environment back to the school setting can prove to be difficult for some of our learners.  Visual schedules are helpful in assisting students in understanding the expectations for the day, giving them a clear picture of how the day will be structured, and can also help assist with students who have difficulties with transitions.  There are a number of different types of visual schedules depending on the student’s level of support needed.  Here are some examples below.

    Simple Check Box Schedule

    Above is a simple check-box schedule which gives a clear sequence of the day and also allows the student to mark off completed activities.

    Visual Schedule

    Above in an example of a visual schedule in which you can change the pictures as needed.  This is a very important aspect of a schedule as it allows students to be reliant on the consistency of the schedule being correct, even though the schedule might change day to day. As we know, different, unplanned activities might arise, and this allows the teacher to prepare the learner for the change in schedule and to practice knowing what is coming, even if it is different from the typical plan.

    Adjustable Schedule

    This is another example of an adjustable schedule, but the student can move the item from “to do”, to “all done” for completed activities.

    Transition Schedule

    A transition schedule is a great visual tool for those that may struggle moving from one activity or area to another.  The student is able to check their schedule, and the picture represents WHERE the student is supposed to go to next.  There can be a number of different activities or items that they engage with at the area, but it assists the student in knowing where they are supposed to go.  The student will take the picture from their schedule and match it to the matching picture around the room/building.

    First Then Schedule

    A First/Then board is another visual that breaks down the schedule into simpler, smaller parts.  This can be especially beneficial for students who need access to reinforcement at a higher rate.  The student is to complete the first activity and then given access to a preferred item/activity.

    Each of these schedules can be combined with a reinforcement system in order to increase the student’s independence, endurance with work/non-preferred activities, and increasing positive pro-social behaviors while in the school environment.  Visual schedules also help students learn how to organize their day and plan for changes in routines.

    Katie Justice  
    Katie Justice, BCBA

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