Akron ABA therapists

ABA Therapists Talk the Power of Positive Reinforcement

One of the most effective strategies our Akron ABA therapists utilize in therapy is positive reinforcement.

If you think about it, most of us respond well to this. We do things all the time in our everyday lives, anticipating the benefits we’ll receive. A teenager may work odd jobs in order to buy tickets to a concert. An adult may do yard work on the weekends because he or she likes the personal satisfaction of seeing their lawn looking nice. Students finish their homework so they can have the reward of playing video games afterward.

When they receive that positive reward, it “reinforces” their behavior. It makes them more likely to put in the work next time for the payoff they’ll get.

As our ABA therapists can explain, it’s the same with children who have autism and are receiving ABA therapy, although the goal, reward and process may look different.

What are Positive Reinforcements? 

Positive reinforcements can be items or activities that occurs after an action that boosts the likelihood that someone will carry out the same action again. In other words, it’s something that strengthens the behavior.

There are two basic kinds of reinforcers: Primary and secondary. A primary reinforcement is something tied to a basic need – water, food, sleep, etc. On the other hand, secondary reinforcements vary from person-to-person and they can develop and change over time. They are learned. For example, a secondary reinforcer for an 8-year-old may be a cookie for cleaning their room. That may not work so well with a teenager.

A big part of what our ABA therapists work to figure out with each patient is what they are interested in, what motivates them. We can then use that to develop a set of positive reinforcements that can help motivate changes in behavior.

Looking for the Least “Intrusive” Reinforcement

We want to be careful about the type of reinforcement we use because we don’t want it to become problematic. We look for what is going to be effective, but also the least intrusive.

For example, giving a child praise is one of the least intrusive types of positive reinforcement. Tangible items like stickers or token/points to work toward an activity might be considered slightly more intrusive. Food is one of the most intrusive.

If we find, however, that a child is only responding to the more intrusive reinforcement (i.e., a piece of candy or a single chip), often our strategy will be to pair it with a less intrusive reinforcement. So for example, we will give a child the chip but pair that with something like praise, with the hope of eventually getting them to only require the less intrusive reinforcement and ultimately, none at all. This is especially important because a primary reinforcer may not be as effective if the basic need is already met (i.e., the child isn’t hungry).

Questions Our ABA Therapists Ask

The principle of positive reinforcement seems pretty simple, but if we really want it to reduce a behavior that is challenging or increase behavior that is appropriate, it truly necessitates an approach that is both planned and systematic.

Some of the questions to ask that will determine how effective the reinforcement will be:

When is reinforcement being delivered? Timing, as they say, is everything. If you deliver the reinforcement immediately after teaching the skill/behavior, it’s going to be much more powerful than if it’s delayed. Token systems that delay gratification can be effective for some kids, but we may need to start with something more immediate.

Is the positive reinforcement meaningful? We constantly need to be asking whether the reinforcement we used with our patient last week or last month is still going to be effective. Using the same reinforcer over and over again is going to diminish its effectiveness.

What exactly is being reinforced? We need to identify exactly what behavior we are targeting because it has to be applied intentionally and systematically if we want it to work.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Akron and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

Reinforcement, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

More Blog Entries:

ABA Therapists: Play-Based, Child-Led Therapy Most Effective in Motivating Kids’ Speech, Dec. 13, 2019, Akron ABA Therapists Blog