Finding Reinforcers

Janine Shapiro, Co-Clinical Director of Access Behavior Analysis

The Definition of a Reinforcer

There is perhaps no term used in behavior analysis that is tossed around as casually in the general lexicon as the word “reinforcer.”  Most people familiar with applied behavior analysis (ABA) recognize that the science of ABA is based on the principle of reinforcement.  Unfortunately, the scientific definition of a reinforcer often gets lost in the discussion of reinforcement.  A true reinforcer is an item or event that follows a behavior and increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur in the future.  So often, a child’s favorite items and activities are deemed his reinforcers.  This may be the case but not always!  A child may love an item or activity, but data collection often shows that those items and activities do not function as reinforcers- that is- while enjoyed and appreciated, they do not increase the frequency of the behavior preceding them.  No one can ever state with certainty that a reinforcer has been identified before data shows the target behavior occurring at an increased frequency.

Qualities of a Good Reinforcer

As a speech-language pathologist, my goal is often to teach a non-verbal child to talk.  To do this, my first step is usually to teach a child to repeat what I say.  Therefore, I’m often in search of a reinforcer to increase vocal repetitions.  My protocol is to ask parents what their child loves most in the world.  When given the option of several items, I keep in mind that whatever I use will need to be delivered to the child quickly, and hopefully, if successful, frequently as well.  Therefore, I’m typically in search of an item that is portable and easy to obtain and make available to the child.  When an item or activity is determined, I ask the parents to please restrict all access to the item/activity for at least a week before my intervention begins.  It’s important that the child be extremely motivated for the item/activity to improve the odds that it will function as a reinforcer.

Persistence is Key

I rarely find a reinforcer on my first try.  If I don’t see my targeted behavior increasing within a couple days, I’ll ask the child’s parents to give me complete control and use of another item.  I’ve learned not to become discouraged quickly.  The behavior will increase when I find a reinforcer!  Because of this, I’ve also learned to be upfront when discussing the process of finding reinforcers with parents.  I request that nothing be off the table, and I do my best to explain why it’s often necessary to start with “unnatural reinforcers,” such as edible items.  I also describe a path for teaching a child to respond to more natural reinforcers, such as praise.  

Watch the video below to learn about why behavior analysts frequently use edible reinforcers during therapy and how they can be strategically replaced by natural reinforcers over time.

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