Reinforcement is a familiar concept for those involved in the world of Autism and related developmental disabilities. Its application can vary widely in form and appearance from case-to-case, but the structure that all reinforcement procedures share is that they involve the introduction of something preferred, or removal of something non-preferred, following a person’s behavior that results in that behavior occurring more often in the future. One example of this concept is when a toddler says “Up” and mom picks him up, resulting in the child asking for “up” more frequently.
One of the benefits of reinforcement that contribute to its widespread use is that the “behavior” to be reinforced can be almost anything (excluding things that cannot be directly observed, like thoughts and feelings). Using the principle of reinforcement, we can increase behaviors such as using appropriate words to ask for things, completing homework, doing chores, raising their hand in class, and playing nicely with siblings. Having a basic understanding of the principles and application of reinforcement can prepare a person to implement a variety of reinforcement-based interventions across different types of behaviors.
Like the different types of reinforcement interventions and behaviors they can be used for, the actual “reinforcer” can vary extensively across people. Positive reinforcers are items/activities that are delivered following the behavior of interest that will cause the behavior to occur more often in the future. Typical positive reinforcers may include the delivery of snacks, electronics, toys, and any other item or activity that the learner enjoys. Negative reinforcers are items/activities that are removed following the behavior of interest that will cause the behavior to occur more often in the future. Typical negative reinforcers may include breaks from work, the removal of chores, and any other item or activity that the learner finds non-preferred or aversive.
While the items above and activities are typical reinforcers that are most frequently used in schools, homes, and clinical settings, less traditional reinforcers may be more useful for some learners. The role of “choice” as reinforcer has been an area of interest and research in the field of Behavior Analysis for some time. Studies in this area have found that choice can function as an incredibly potent reinforcer in several different ways.
Choice as Reinforcer
One way choice can be used as a reinforcer is to offer choices between positive reinforcers following the completion of a task. Research has shown that providing a choice between two identical snacks following the conclusion of a work session can increase the amount of work completed by up to 200%!
Similar studies have been conducted showing that the quality and amount of work completed can be dramatically higher when learners are given opportunities to choose between different types of reinforcers. This research can be applied relatively easily at home or in a classroom and may produce significant behavior change.
For example, if a learner earns a snack for helping unload the dishwasher, giving the student a variety of snacks to choose from (including new snacks that are not typically available) may significantly increase the level of independence with which the learner completes the task. The caregiver will also likely find that the student may better enjoy the job, and possibly make it easier to begin introducing novel related tasks (e.g., taking out the trash or sweeping the floor). The same concept can be applied to “treasure boxes” in classrooms, where learners select from an array of items for established behavioral or learning criteria.
Choice of Task
Another way choice can be used as a reinforcer is to offer choices between the tasks themselves. For example, if a teacher allows a learner to select the order that learning objectives are presented, they may be more likely to complete the tasks with no change in the level of reinforcement. At home, a caregiver may similarly affect the quality of a learning opportunity by giving the learner more control over his or her environment.
For example, only asking the learner whether he or she would rather first assist with completing a domestic task or completing a vocational task may increase compliance and the quality of the work of both tasks.
Remember these tips when using choice as a reinforcer:
• Offer a choice of reinforcer for completing a task rather than a set reinforcer
• Out of the choices of reinforcers, it’s a good idea to include those that the learner has limited or no access to otherwise
• Offering a “Reinforcer Store” or “treasure box” of reinforcers to choose from is an easy way to ensure you offer a variety of choices
• Allow the learner to help choose the types of items in the “store” or “treasure box.”
• When possible, offer a choice of tasks (i.e. would you rather wash dishes or sweep?)
• When giving a variety of tasks, allow the learn to choose the order in which they complete them
It is important to remember that behavioral interventions for persons with Autism and related developmental disabilities are highly individualized. The extent to which specific interventions will successfully affect the behavior of learners will vary from person to person. However, giving a person, especially a person with disabilities, autonomy by allowing them to make as many decisions as possible regarding their daily lives is something for which we should always be striving.
Chris Roath is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and has served as a Case Supervisor at Including Kids since 2014. While completing the coursework for his Master’s degree in Behavior Analysis at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, he received specialized training in the areas of verbal behavior and the assessment and treatment of severe problem behavior.