What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement occurs when a stimulus change immediately follows a response and increases the future frequency of that behavior in similar conditions in the future. This “stimulus change” may include adding something (positive reinforcement) or removing something (negative reinforcement). What is reinforcing to each person is different. For example, one child may really enjoy watching videos on the iPad and may be motivated to work for the iPad while another child may not enjoy videos on the iPad or may enjoy videos on the iPad but not enough to be motivated to work for them. In the last example, the iPad would be considered a preferred item, but not a reinforcer. Preferred items that are not initially reinforcing may become reinforcing if access to them is limited. For example, if a child has free access to their toy trains outside of their session time, they may not be motivated to work for them. However, if the toy trains are only available to play with during sessions, then they may be more reinforcing or may hold their reinforcing value for longer.

Reinforcement can include tangible items. For example, some common reinforcers include cookies, pretzels, gummies, juice, iPad, Legos, etc. However, social activities can be reinforcing as well. For examples, some individuals find high fives, verbal praise (i.e. “Great job!, “Awesome work!”, etc.), or hugs reinforcing. Some

individuals may work for “tokens” on a token board. In situations like these, the tokens themselves become reinforcing, as they can be traded in for access to another reinforcing item or activity.

What is reinforcing to an individual may change as they grow older or over a span of months, weeks, days, hours, or even minutes. If an individual contacts too much of a reinforcer they may experience satiation. This means that if the individual has had too much access to the item or activity, they may no longer find it reinforcing and will likely not be motivated to work for it. It is beneficial to use natural reinforcers when possible. Natural reinforcers include items or activities that already occur. For example, if a child enjoys eating ice cream and is working on eating with a spoon, eating the ice cream may function as reinforcement for using the spoon. Reading a bedtime story may function as a natural reinforcer for getting ready for bed, as it is may already be part of a family’s routine. Natural reinforcers may be easier to provide because they are more likely to be readily available. Also, they are more likely to remain in use as formal or intentional reinforcement is faded. When beginning ABA therapy, the BCBA and ABA therapist will aim to identify reinforcers for the child that they are working with. They may identify reinforcers by interviewing parents, asking the child, observing the child in the natural environment and seeing what they interact with, and/or running preference and reinforcer assessments. Each child’s preferences and reinforcers are different and therefore what functions as a reinforcer for one may not function as a reinforcer for another.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied behavior analysis. Harlow, New Jersey: Pearson. Bearss, K., Johnson, C. R., Handen, B. L., Butter, E. M., Lecavalier, L., Smith, T., & Scahill, L. (2018). Parent training for disruptive behavior: the Rubi Autism Network. New York, NY, United States of America: Oxford University Press.

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