Table of contents
Parenting a child with autism comes with unique challenges, especially when trying to teach them socially appropriate behaviors while unlearning inappropriate ones. ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, is a science-backed method to understand and modify behaviors by adjusting their environmental triggers. It’s a proven approach to help individuals with autism significantly enhance their social skills, communication abilities, and academic prowess while effectively managing disruptive behaviors. One of the most effective methods used in ABA therapy is positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement is a fundamental concept in ABA therapy. It involves adding a reinforcing stimulus immediately after a desired behavior occurs, increasing the likelihood of the behavior being repeated. For example, if a child with autism washes their dishes without being asked and receives compliments and a bowl of ice cream, they are more likely to wash dishes again in the future.
The ice cream is the stimulus immediately following the desired behavior of washing the dishes. As long as the ice cream is reinforcing to that child, they will most likely wash dishes with a smile. It’s also a win-win because all parties are happy. Mom and Dad don’t have to argue with the child to wash the dishes, and the child gets dessert.
Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves removing or avoiding an aversive stimulus to increase the occurrence of a desired behavior. It is crucial to distinguish negative reinforcement from punishment. While both involve the removal of something, negative reinforcement seeks to encourage a behavior, whereas punishment aims to decrease a behavior.
Imagine a child with autism who doesn’t enjoy loud music and often becomes upset when it’s played. If the music is turned off each time the child calmly requests for it to be stopped, they are more likely to repeat this polite request in the future to avoid an unpleasant situation. Here, removing the loud music is negative reinforcement, encouraging the child to use their words rather than reacting adversely to the discomfort.
Why is Positive Reinforcement Important?
When a child with autism is learning new socially appropriate behaviors, they are usually unlearning socially inappropriate behaviors simultaneously. Positive reinforcement has numerous benefits, making it more effective than punishment. Unlike punishment, which can lead to frustration and undesired outcomes, positive reinforcement motivates and reinforces appropriate behaviors without causing emotional harm.
Positive reinforcement helps children with autism feel loved and cared for, promoting compliance and long-term behavioral improvements. Children can focus on learning and developing their skills without fear or anxiety by avoiding punitive measures, enhancing self-esteem, and having a positive attitude toward learning.
Is Positive Reinforcement Good for Autism?
When a child with autism is learning new socially appropriate behaviors, they are usually unlearning socially inappropriate behaviors at the same time. In fact, the new skills or behaviors that these children are learning in their ABA sessions are often carefully planned replacements for socially inappropriate behaviors that the BCBA and parents have discussed. They are determined to work on as part of the child’s treatment plan.
The reinforcement strategy in ABA therapy is tailored to each child’s preferences and interests. By identifying what motivates the child, therapists can use preferred items, activities, or praise to reinforce positive behaviors. The reward system keeps the therapy engaging and enjoyable for the child, contributing to the overall effectiveness of the treatment.
Why is Positive Reinforcement More Effective Than Punishment?
Positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment because it has more beneficial outcomes all the way around. Positive reinforcement involves adding something motivating and reinforcing to the child with autism. At the same time, punishment requires subtracting or taking something away from the child. Taking things away from a child with autism can be frustrating for them and end up causing the exact opposite of the behavior goal in mind.
Just as an adult goes to work to earn a paycheck at the end of each week (positive reinforcement), it would cause incredible frustration. It would feel like punishment to be expected to work hard all week with little or no reward at the end of the week if a paycheck were reduced or withheld.
Why is Reinforcing Positive Behavior Important?
The most crucial reason for reinforcing positive behavior is that it teaches children with autism what is appropriate and acceptable. There is no cure for autism that will magically make it go away. However, according to a study by Lovaas in 1987, ABA has successfully treated autism to the extent that half of all children with autism were considered “indistinguishable from their peers” after receiving intensive applied behavior analysis therapy for forty hours each week. Another 90% showed significant improvement.
Autism affects social skills, and without treatment, children with autism do not clearly understand what is socially appropriate and inappropriate. Many children with autism cannot filter their comments when speaking to their peers or adults. They may seem rude or uncaring by saying precisely what they are thinking.
They may fail to be discreet with bodily functions or table manners. It may not occur to them to wait or raise their hand before speaking. They may cut others off in line without understanding why this would anger someone.
Whatever their atypical behavior may be, a new skill must be learned to establish a replacement behavior. The best way to teach a new skill is to continuously reinforce the appropriate behavior. The most successful way to reinforce a new skill so that it is likely to be repeated and generalized into other areas of the child’s life is to use positive reinforcement.
How is Positive Reinforcement Used?
The idea behind positive reinforcement in ABA Therapy is to elicit a response or increase the likelihood that the child will repeat positive behavior. Positive reinforcement is ideal because we are drawn to positive words and actions and tend to find ways to avoid things we don’t like.
Positive reinforcement works because it encourages a child to comply without yelling, threatening, punishing, shaming, or any other damaging and ineffective technique that may result in long-term emotional harm like chronic anxiety or fear. Instead, positive reinforcement helps to develop good character, self-discipline, personal responsibility, and healthy self-esteem.
Children raised with parents who use positive reinforcement tend to exceed behavioral expectations as they seek more positive reinforcement. Their behavior is consistently compliant on a more long-term than short-term basis because they are not responding to the moment in fear of punishment. They are confident and comfortable. They feel good about themselves and their surroundings and show it in their behavior.
Positive reinforcement is delivered immediately following the desired behavior to encourage the child to repeat that particular behavior. But that isn’t all there is to it. When a child is evaluated for ABA services, they are also evaluated for their preferences- their likes. What motivates your child? Do they like drawing? Playing outside? Video games? Dancing? Playing board games? Whatever it is that your child loves is what will motivate them to work with the ABA therapist as they learn new skills. When they complete a task as they are supposed to, they earn their preferred item or activity.
Positive Reinforcement Is Fun and Rewarding for Children
Sometimes their preferences change, and the things that motivate them aren’t inspiring anymore. That’s okay! There’s always something else that will encourage them, which keeps ABA exciting for the child and the therapist! As the child learns, the sessions evolve, the treatment plans change and things can get pretty challenging for the child and therapist. But all the while, when the child displays appropriate behavior, the therapist delivers positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement can be any of the following, depending on what works for the child:
- A tangible item (i.e., preferred item- toy, bubble, game, tablet)
- Verbal praise delivered with enthusiasm (“Wow! Great job!)
- An engaging play activity (tickles, tag, swing, trampoline, etc.)
- Food items (small snack, candy, cookie- with parent permission)
- Break from “working.”
The idea is to keep it exciting and to make it feel rewarding and fun. If it doesn’t feel rewarding and fun, then it isn’t positive, and the child will not feel like completing any of the tasks during a session. Momentum during a session is part of keeping it positive.
Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom
Positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool in the classroom to encourage desired behaviors and create a positive learning environment. Teachers can apply ABA concepts in the classroom to promote appropriate behavior and improve learning outcomes for children with autism. Frequent and enthusiastic verbal praise, offering rewards for completing tasks, and creating a positive and supportive environment are some ways positive reinforcement can be applied in schools.
Here are a couple of examples of how positive reinforcement can be used:
“Well done, Sarah! Your active participation in class discussions and sharing your thoughts is impressive and valuable to our learning.”
Implement a token system for completing homework on time. Each completed assignment earns the student a token, and they can exchange tokens for small rewards or extra free time.
Create a supportive classroom atmosphere where students feel encouraged to express themselves, respect each other, and celebrate achievements together.
Offer short breaks for engaging in preferred activities after completing challenging tasks. This can motivate students and provide moments of enjoyment.
Recognize and praise positive social interactions, like cooperating with peers, showing kindness, and being helpful to others.
These examples balance being concise and providing enough context to understand how positive reinforcement can be effectively applied in the classroom.
Reinforcement frequency depends on each child’s needs. Initially, each correct behavior is instantly reinforced with praise or a reward (a 1:1 ratio), known as continuous reinforcement. This helps ensure that the child stays focused and accomplishes tasks. It’s typically evident when a child requires this level of reinforcement, as they might revert to inappropriate behavior when not consistently praised or rewarded.
Over time, as the child’s behavior improves and the appropriate behaviors become more habitual, the reinforcement schedule can be adjusted. The frequency of rewards may be gradually decreased, such as offering praise or reward for every other or even every third correct response.
Eventually, the goal is to remove the reinforcement altogether, allowing the child to independently maintain the desired behaviors. This transition is done progressively to ensure the child’s success and the lasting impact of the new behavior patterns.
Why Punishment is Controversial in ABA Therapy
Punishment in ABA therapy is a contentious topic due to ethical concerns and potential negative consequences. When choosing behavioral interventions, it is essential to consider the long-term impact on a child’s emotional well-being. Instead, ABA therapy primarily focuses on positive reinforcement to promote lasting behavioral changes without causing harm or distress.
Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement and punishment have distinct goals and effects. Negative reinforcement promotes a particular behavior by taking away something unpleasant. On the other hand, punishment is designed to reduce a behavior by introducing negative consequences.
In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, the emphasis is primarily on positive reinforcement. This approach encourages positive behaviors and learning by providing rewards or positive feedback.
How Positive Reinforcement is Used in ABA
Positive reinforcement is at the heart of applied behavior analysis, and it is at the heart of what we do at Circle Care Services. Your child’s treatment plan is designed to accommodate your child’s needs. Start ABA therapy today. Our staff is trained to keep the experience fun and motivating for your child. By keeping the experience positive for your child, all of the work will feel like play. If you’re a parent or teacher looking for more tips and tricks related to autism, sign up for our email list. We’re here to help you every step of the way.