Educational Section – Reinforcement – Making It Work For You

The success of the ABA and Discrete Trial Training approach rests with the effectiveness of
the reinforcement used. It is good to remember the definition of reinforcement: “a stimulus
following a particular behaviour which can increase the frequency of that behaviour recurring”.
It is not something you choose to give the child, it is something the child chooses and seeks
out more of. Relying on the common rewards used and not checking their effect is not going to
lead to efficiency in teaching.

In choosing reinforcement for a young child you could choose a preferred snack food. You
could also use the child’s preferred sensory modality, as reinforcement will be seen as
entertaining one or more of the child’s senses. Or you could provide interest and relieve
boredom by providing an activity or a surprise element. Social reinforcement is based on a
desire to be noticed and acclaimed, on companionship and desire to please, and at times on
the desire to control others. A child not interested in social rewards can be taught to appreciate
them by having social rewards paired with more desirable rewards. Even activities we do not
approve of and want to reduce can be used as reinforcers, but they must be timed for short
duration and under the adult’s control.

Based on sensory modalities:

Spinners, flashing lights, water wands, bead frame, hour glass, snow flakes, torches, fans,
bubbles, tinted glasses, coloured cellophane, shadow play, kaleidoscopes, pictures, instant
photos (mobiles- digitals), mirrors, jewellery, letters- numbers, map book – phone book,
shapes, string, movie credits, computer, watches, windmills, leaves, shiny water, wheels, wind
up jumping toys, pictures of special interest items washing machine-dryer, lift the flap book,
pop-up books, blowing cotton balls – tissues, watching drink go up straw, etc.

Keys, bells, musical books, musical cards, talking toys, musical instruments, telephones –
mobiles, tape of music, clickers, bubble wrap (also tactual), stirring in metal pot, music- CD’s,
rattles, songs, story tapes, machinery noises, noise maker toys, clapping- cheering, silly noises
– surprise, party whistles (also visual), balloons (farting noise), whoopie cushions, rain stick,

Playdoh, slime, goo, gloop, sticky toys, cush-balls, fur, human skin, hair, ears, elbow flesh, silk
– silky ribbons, worry beads, elastic bands, stress balls, tickles, deep pressure – through
cushion, banging on foot, vibrating toys, sand, water play, bean bags, shaving cream, soft
rubber, oral chewy food, hotties, freeze brick or cold-pack, Velcro (also auditort), band aids,
glue picking – labels ,etc.

Bouncing on knee – horsies, seesaws, bike rides, trampoline, swinging, swivel chair, rocking,
over shoulder, action songs, crawling, rolling, running, wizzies, aeroplanes, hanging from
monkey bars, dancing, marching, exercise balls, space hoppers, pogo stick, scooter, roller
skating, tunnels, ball pits (also tactual), balancing tasks in playground, sack rases, tug of war,
wheel barrows, summersaults and hand stands, obstacle courses, twister game, jumping –
stepping stones, hop scotch, throwing balls – bean bags, kicking balls, Velcro darts and paper
planes (also visual) etc,

Based on social attention:
Peek a boo, hide and jump out, watching you dance, facial expressions – silly faces, silly hats
glasses – ears, silly noises – voice change, silly expressions, turn taking, child as teacher and
you make error, surprise element with voice –face, high fives, chasey, anticipation games
(round and round the garden, open shut them etc), praise, show Mum something – praise by
other, chat on topic, how other rewards are presented, maintain slight social tension – positive
stress, etc. Remember your ingoing enthusiasm is a good reinforcer.

Chocolate, M&Ms, sultanas, lollypops, sprinkles, icing sugar, sherbet, dry fruit, grapes, all
fruits, cerials, popcorn, Nutella, honey, yoghourt, chilli sauce, chips, Twisties, biscuits, crackers
etc. all in mini sizes. Drinks and whatever the child likes. Working during meals, a spoonful at
a time (good for teaching request and labels).
Therapists are not to provide food – parents are responsible for their child’s potential allergy

Activities and interests:
Puzzle, books, video and music in short timed grabs, computer programs, cause effect toys,
mazes, threading, games – card – board games–memory/ solitaire etc, hangman, dot to dot,
magna doodle, drawing, free time – escape, talking about special topic with a timer, working on
their collections, construction toys, attempt or participation in adult activities (cooking, nailing,
watering garden, household chores), dress ups, painting, any activity the child likes to spend
time on (Premack’s Principal) etc.

To do this we need to assess the effectiveness of each reinforcer, and plot where it stands in
relation to the others. Here are some suggestions.

Measure output:
Timed trials with different reinforcers compared.
Timing engagement with a reinforcer.
Attitude – attention to task.
Check choice and use a reinforcement menu:
Offer in sets of two or three – check frequency chosen – compare.
Ask the child what he/she wants to work for
How long to satiation.
Watch the child’s reactions
Check for arousal – body tension – flush – clarity of gaze –anticipation, – agitation
Sudden stillness. Facial expression – laughter.
Motivating retrieval across distance.
Tracking and scanning.
Body language – flapping etc.
Verbal behaviour – request – demand.
Refusal to release item.
Tracking and scanning for the reinforcer.

A basic reinforcement hierarchy should be worked out for each child and a list hung on the
wall. This will need updating often as the situation changes. Therapists will be able to refer to
the list as they work. Parents need to assist with providing the desired and appropriate items.
You can now use the hierarchy to ensure best performance:

  •  Use highly desirable items for new and difficult tasks.
  •  Use lesser items for easy and maintenance tasks.
  •  Build up the power of weaker reinforcers which are easy or more appropriate to deliver by pairing them with the stronger, highly desirable reinforcers.
  • Use weaker reinforcers to fade out reinforcement when the reinforcement schedule needs to be thinned to random intermittent schedule.


  • The most difficult tasks will need the most powerful reinforcement if the child is to complete them to best of ability.
  • The most disliked tasks will also need the most powerful reinforcers if the child is to comply with task requirement.
  • The more powerful the reinforcer the, faster the child’s response will be. Reinforcers will lose their power if overused or if free access to them is allowed. The laws of economics apply.
  • The hierarchy may not be stable over time and change is to be expected.
  • The hierarchy may depend on a combination of variables and may thus be specific to the person delivering the reinforcers.
  • Some reinforcer may be so absorbing that if left with the child for too long will provide a level of excitation which will be detrimental to further teaching.
  • A child may work with low level reinforcement but will not be working to capacity.
  •  Do not forget to refer to the reinforcement schedule. What level does the child need at this stage for this task?
  •  Always use praise with a tangible, but remember that praise alone will soon lose its value.
  • Do not reinforce at end of task only. Reinforce specific effort, attention, coping with difficulty and fear of failure.
  • Do not use threat either of physical punishment or withdrawal of privilege. This is called negative reinforcement and does not lead to enthusiastic participation.
  • Do not use bribery (“you can have this if you do….”) It is not reinforcement. The child must be reinforced on your terms and see it as a surprise (except where you are working on a contract with an older child).
  • Do not give your reinforcers away on request – it is for you to give as a consequence – not on request.
  •  Remember over reinforcing is better than under reinforcing.

Consequently ongoing vigilance is required.

The child’s reactions must be constantly monitored. You need to be aware of how the child
feels. If the child seems happy to participate your reinforcement is working.

The child’s success with drills must be monitored. If the child is working fast and succeeding
you have the right level of drills and your reinforcement is working.
Make comments in the communication book on any changes you have noted. This will help the
others working with the child.

Compiled by the Perth Case Managers 2005.
Reprinted from Rhubarb Jan 05

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