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