As Cleveland ABA therapists, so much of what we’re able to achieve with our pediatric patients is because of our tactical use of reinforcement. Reinforcement can be positive (game time, a sticker, a favorite song/dance, a gummy treat) or negative (typically ignoring or denying a preferred activity). Where possible, we lean toward the use of positive reinforcements. But we recognize that from the outside looking in, this might seem like bribery.
So, what’s the difference between bribery and positive reinforcement in Applied Behavior Analysis treatment for kids on the autism spectrum?
Here’s our Cleveland ABA therapists generally outline the difference:
- Bribery is what takes place when a child has already started engaging in a problematic or unexpected behavior and then something like screen time or a special treat is offered in an effort to get them to stop engaging that behavior. It’s not really used as a learning moment or opportunity for a child to gain a new set of skills or engage in a different pattern of behavior. Bribery often stems from a one-time interaction where a child gets some sort of preferred item, food, or activity in exchange for changing their behavior. It might be effective in the short-term (which is why so many parents use it!) but that behavior is going to happen again and again – and won’t change unless you offer the same/similar “bribe” to offset it. Ultimately, it’s the child who maintains control in this scenario.
- Reinforcement occurs when the preferred item or activity is given only after – and contingent upon – the expected/appropriate behavior change. That might sound really similar to bribery, but we’re delivering the reinforcement only after we see the child “change the channel” and their behavior as a means to increase that behavior.
To illustrate the difference, let’s give a dinner time example.
Let’s say you’ve spent time preparing a meal for your family and place it in front of your child and encourage a bit. The child immediately bursts into tears, throws themself on the ground, and demands chicken nuggets. You respond, “If you will stop crying, I’ll go make you some nuggets.” The crying stops, the child gets their nuggets – win-win, right?
Except that was bribery. It “fixed” the immediate issue, but the same scenario is going to happen again and again – and your child isn’t going to eat their dinner if they know chicken nuggets are on the table as on option – if they have a “big reaction.”
Instead, our Cleveland ABA therapists would recommend a reinforcement approach. Take a deep breath. Then rather than wholly giving in to the child’s demands, make them this deal: You will make chicken nuggets. Plan to do so ahead of time, in fact, if you know this is likely to be a point of contention. Then you use the chicken nuggets as the reinforcer. You require first a bite of dinner in exchange for each chicken nugget. With this tactic, you are reinforcing the expected behavior (eating the dinner you prepared) with the reinforcer (they chicken nugget they really want).
In the end, the goal of “bribery” is for the person giving the “bribe” to get what they want. But with reinforcement, the goal is ultimately to benefit the child/learner.
When we talk about reinforcement tactics in ABA, we sometimes hear from parents that they are reticent to “bribe” their child to do what’s expected of them in the first place. But this is where they are confusing bribery with reinforcement.
Look at this way: If what you’re doing is not effective, trying something new may be necessary. And reinforcement involves a bit of planning on your part. You know your child is likely to take issue with the dinner you prepared. Set them up for success by motivating/teaching them upfront.
Cleveland ABA Therapists Tips for Parent Positive Reinforcement
As ABA therapists, our sessions take a fair bit of planning to ensure we’re targeting the goals/skillsets of each child with whom we’re working. But parents can use some of these same basic strategies at home to help facilitate desired results.
A few ideas:
- “Catch” expected behaviors. You may already be planning to provide your child with some type of treat, like game time or some chocolate. All the better if you can do so after “catching” them engaged in expected/appropriate behavior that you want to target or encourage. The more you do this, the more expected behaviors you’ll see.
- Make sure you’re targeting an appropriate behavior to reinforce. You want to be sure it’s something your child is actually capable of. Start with easier tasks and then work your way up to more challenging skills. Remember: You want to set them up for success and improve their confidence that they can reach their goals!
- Keep an eye out for warning signs. In ABA, one of the first things we learn is to study the “ABC’s” of behavior. This involves carefully observing the antecedent (what happens right before an inappropriate behavior), the behavior itself, and then the consequence. By altering either the antecedent or consequence, we can help children alter behaviors and gain new skills. Watching out for warning signs is knowing what antecedents are likely to trigger a meltdown or other inappropriate behavior that you’re trying to target. Go into situations you know may be triggering prepared with tools to help reinforce when they engage in expected/appropriate behaviors.
In the event a tantrum or meltdown occurs, it’s important to wait until they are in a calmer place before initiating any sort of reinforcement. (They’re unlikely to be able to respond much at all when they’re in such a heightened, emotional state.)
When they do start to calm down and get a reign on their emotions: Praise them for it! This is positive reinforcement to. Praise them using their calm-down strategies (deep breaths, counting to 10, squeezing their palms, etc.). Then when they are truly calm enough to engage in meaningful communication, you can outline the terms of the reinforcement (i.e., three bites of dinner = 1 chicken nugget).
If you have questions about the difference between positive reinforcement and bribery and how best to implement positive reinforcement at home, our dedicated Cleveland ABA therapists can help.
Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Akron, Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights 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.
Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism Speaks
More Blog Entries:
How Our Cleveland ABA Therapists Teach Kids With Autism Personal Hygiene Skills, Aug. 11, 2022, Cleveland ABA Therapy Blog