Table of contents
Your high school student brings home a report card with all As and Bs on it. As a reward, you and your husband decide to treat him/her to their favorite ice cream shop for dessert. You spend the time congratulating your child and sharing how proud you are of all of the hard work that they have been putting into their schoolwork. As an incentive, you and your spouse offer dinner at their favorite restaurant and some spending money if the next report card is just as good or better. They can even invite a friend. This is positive reinforcement in action.
Positive reinforcement consists of a stimulus that is added to the environment immediately after the desired response has been exhibited, increasing the likelihood that the response will occur again. The stimulus is simply something that increases the chances that a response or a reaction will occur.
In other words, if a teacher provides the right reinforcing stimulus immediately after a child performs an appropriate behavior it is more likely that the child will repeat that appropriate behavior and learn to use it more often. What does that look like? Well, if we say “touch tummy” to a toddler and the toddler touches their tummy right away, then the teacher or therapist would provide immediate positive reinforcement using something highly motivating or exciting for that toddler to reward them for responding correctly. This also encourages the toddler to participate with the therapist in the future because there is a reward for playing with the therapist and it is fun!
The reinforcement is going to be different for each child based on their personal preferences. Some children are happy with verbal praise and smiles while other children love to be tickled or chased. Some children enjoy bubbles as a reward and others just want a break with some free time to do whatever they want to do. These individual preferences will be discovered by our staff at the initial intake at Circle Care Services and they will evolve as ABA sessions progress.
The Role of Positive Reinforcement in New Jersey treatment for Autism
The number one benefit to using positive reinforcement is that it focuses on what the child is doing right. As a parent and even as a teacher, it can be a slippery slope when the focus is targeted on what is going wrong with a student. One reprimand or correction in behavior can lead to frustration which leads to more negative behavior and this can set the tone for the rest of the school day or the rest of an ABA session.
The role of positive reinforcement is to outweigh the focus on the negative behaviors with a greater focus on the positive behaviors. Positive reinforcement is a great motivator. A Harvard study of 60 strategic business unit leadership teams at a large information processing company briefly examined the difference between positive and negative feedback. The findings show that the top performing business teams were the ones who received 5.6 positive comments to 1 criticism.
The article beautifully sums up how positive feedback (reinforcement) affected the top performing teams:
“…even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts….Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.”
If positive reinforcement works so well with typical people in the business world, imagine how effective positive reinforcement can be for a young child on the autism spectrum who is testing various behaviors in an attempt to figure out what is appropriate and what is not appropriate behavior. Imagine the satisfaction that the child might feel from the continuous praise, smiles, stickers, bubbles, tickles, iPad or whatever the reinforcing motivation (stimulus) might be for them. We understand these principles at Circle Care and we train our staff to create a highly engaging and motivating atmosphere during sessions so that your child will look forward to their ABA time.
Just as it creates more vigor, determination and creativity for business minded adults, it also does the same for any other human because that is how we are neurologically wired. We like praise and recognition because it triggers good feelings and it drives us to keep seeking those good feelings by repeating those events or behaviors which yielded those good feelings. The same is true for children on the autism spectrum. ABA at Circle Care Services uses these principles of positive reinforcement to teach and guide children with ASD toward socially appropriate behavior and effective communication skills in a natural teaching environment while having fun. Another benefit of using positive reinforcement in ABA or any other learning environment is that given enough time, it seems to be a long lasting method of teaching. “Learning accompanied by positive feelings and associations is more likely to be remembered, even beyond the end of the reinforcement schedule…”. This is important because in ABA we are teaching life-long skills that will serve these children well through their school years into adulthood.
How Positive Reinforcement is Used in ABA Therapy
When positive reinforcement is used in ABA therapy, a behavior is targeted for change. If a child wanders around during meal times, the target for change may be “remaining seated during meals”. If a child is accessing electronic toys without permission at home, the target behavior may be “Johnny will ask a parent or teacher for access to iPad.”
When the child with autism responds with the appropriate target behavior, the consequence for that behavior should be immediate positive reinforcement so that the child is motivated to change (repeat) the appropriate behavior. By using the principle that “behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e., strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out or be extinguished (i.e., weakened),” a behavior analyst will help to identify what types of reinforcers will work to change behavior for each individual.
Once a therapist knows exactly what will reinforce the target behaviors, the next important step is to implement a schedule of reinforcement that keeps the child motivated, interested and happy to comply with the treatment plan. Read our article on why positive reinforcement is so effective for the treatment of autism.
Types of Positive Reinforcement
There are four main categories of positive reinforcers:
- Tangible Reinforcers– are items that a child can touch, hold, taste, smell, or see. A child might be highly reinforced by having access to a tablet after displaying positive behavior. Or, maybe a child is reinforced by a certain toy, book or random object.
- Social Reinforcement- are positive social interactions that include actions such as high fives, smiling, tickles, verbal praise, or any gestures in a social setting that can increase the likelihood of positive behaviors in a social setting in the future.
One example of a social reinforcer could be the verbal praise of a teacher and thumbs up from peers in a classroom where a student fears reading aloud. This student is likely to read aloud again in the future because of the positive social reinforcement.
- Natural Reinforcers– are reinforcers that do not require any type of learning to become desirable. Food and water are natural reinforcers. Another example of natural reinforcement: a child asks for a ball that is out of reach and an adult hands it to the child. The adult handing the ball to the child is naturally reinforcing and increases the likelihood that the child will request “ball” in the future.
- Activity Based Reinforcement– is providing access to fun activities as reinforcers for positive behavior. For example, a child finishes a task in school at his/her desk and they are allowed access to a computer for ten minutes. Brushing teeth before getting a bedtime story would also be an example of activity based reinforcement.
Schedules of Reinforcement
Depending on how you want to teach a behavior, there are five main types of reinforcement schedules to choose from.
- Continuous Schedule– Reinforce behavior after every occurrence. This can be tiring as a teacher and it could also make reinforcers less effective.
- Fixed Ratio– Reinforce behavior after a specific number of occurrences. For example, you could reinforce a positive behavior every other occurrence or every third or fifth occurrence.
- Fixed Interval– Reinforce behavior after a fixed amount of time has passed. For example, if a child goes to bed on time every night for five nights in a row (school nights), then they are allowed to stay up late on the 6th night (non school night.).
- Variable Ratio– Reinforce behavior on a random schedule. For example, reinforce positive behavior after one occurrence, then after three occurrences, then after two, then after five and so on.
- Variable Interval– Reinforce behavior after a variable amount of time. For example, after five minutes, then after two minutes, then after twenty minutes and so on.
All of these elements together are all part of successful positive reinforcement in ABA treatment. Every goal is carefully planned and accurately measured by taking data during sessions so that progress can be monitored. By targeting the behavior that needs to change and using powerful reinforcers that motivate the child with autism to manipulate the consequences following the positive behavior, the chances of increasing the positive behavior are greater and ultimately the chances of long term learning are also greater.
Weaning off of a Positive Reinforcement Schedule
Eventually, the child will start to respond more frequently and independently and in time the use of positive reinforcers to motivate behavior will not be necessary. At this point it would be appropriate to fade out the use of positive reinforcers and allow the child to enjoy natural reinforcement as their reward.
The goal is to steer away from criticism and to focus on positive feedback and reinforcement. As was aforementioned in the Harvard study, “…the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts” But positive reinforcement can “…motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.”
- Harvard study praise to criticism ratio
- Ackerman, C. E. (2021, January 29). Positive Reinforcement in Psychology (Definition 5 Examples). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from
- Simply Psychology.