6 Big Mistakes You Might Be Making with Reinforcers


Reinforcement is a powerful evidence-based practice that helps students with autism and developmental disabilities. Reinforcement, or a positive consequence for a specific behavior, helps with academic instruction, establishing functional skills, and addressing challenging behavior among many other things. Reinforcers can be anything from high-fives, to gummi bears, to a paycheck. However, there are critical mistakes a lot of teachers make when implementing reinforcement. Avoid these mistakes by making sure you do the following: 

Update Student’s List of Reinforcers Often

People change. Students are no different. What motivated us months ago probably doesn’t motivate us the same now. Using the same reinforcers for a student month-after-month might reduce the reinforcer’s efficacy, as student preferences change. Make sure you do a preference assessment every few months to ensure you are providing the most effective reinforcers. In addition, have a data collection system in place to record when new reinforcers are found during the course of the school day. Did the student just go pick up that new toy you brought in a play with it? Write it down! Use that knowledge for later.

Differentiate Reinforcers

Getting a paycheck is a big reinforcer. Getting a “thank you” is a small (but important!) reinforcer. When a student completes a task that they’ve done before and is easy for them, then a small reinforcer would do. This might look like getting a “good job” after they finish washing hands, which they do consistently. However, if a student does something amazing, we want to make sure we give them a big reinforcer. This could be getting to go play on the swing set for finishing a hard math problem. Just think: “if it’s bigger than before, give them more.”

Don’t Allow Satiation

We’ve all had the experience of buying a big tub of popcorn at the movie theater and by the time you get to the bottom, you don’t want another bite. Students can feel the same way. If you continue to give the student the same reinforcer throughout the day, we run the risk of the student getting sick of it. Make sure you have multiple different reinforcers and switch them out throughout the day and week.

Let Student Choose Reinforcer

Before the tasks begins, let the student choose the reinforcer from a choice board or communication system. Much like it would be hard to go to work if we didn’t know what our paycheck would be, when a student knows what they are working for AND got to choose it, they have clear expectations about what the outcome of their hard work will be.

Thin the Reinforcement Schedule

Once a student can complete a task or is managing their behavior in a certain situation it might be time to think about thinning the reinforcement schedule. Instead of getting a reinforcer for every step in a task, maybe it’s every other step. Maybe instead of getting a reinforcer for every minute they spend seated during a difficult task, it’s every minute and 15 seconds. The key is to slowly build the tolerance. And of course, if there are set-backs, it’s okay to increase the reinforcement schedule.

Use or Fade to Natural Reinforcers

Finally, the student’s environment provides a wealth of natural reinforces that can motivate them to complete a task. Like washing hands before snack time or putting on your coat before going outside, natural reinforcers help the student understand the functional value of what we ask of them. The more that we can use natural reinforcers, the more likely the student will succeed in situations with non-disabled peers.

Learn more about Reinforcers at our Pyramid Approach to Education Online Workshop

Happening August 3rd and 4th

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