In any ABA program one of the most important aspects is selecting powerful reinforcers for the child. The success of teaching and maintaining behavior is contingent on what reinforcers are selected and how they are delivered (Comunidad Los Horcones, 1992). As therapists and parents we believe we can often determine what will be reinforcing to a child, but this is a risky process. It is better to use practices such as preference assessments and reinforcement sampling to choose reinforcers. Both practices present a variety of items we think may be reinforcing or that the student has shown an affinity for and then assesses the student’s approaches and interest in each item. For example, if the child is shown a book, but doesn’t reach for it or attempt to engage in play then that item probably won’t be a strong enough motivator to bring about behavioral change. The other day I introduced a new toy to a child that I thought would be strongly reinforcing because many children love it. I was wrong however, to make this assumption because what serves as a reinforcer for one child may not for another. The child did not like the toy and even pushed it away when I introduced it, which signaled to me that this would not be a good choice for that child. If I had begun to teach using that item to follow behavior it is very likely that the behavior I was working on would not increase. Using ineffective potential reinforcers can lead to frustration for the child and the parent/therapist and can impede progress.
To be sure that an item can be labeled as a reinforcer we must look at the definition. Any event following a behavior that increases the rate of the behavior can be categorized as a reinforcer (Miller, 2006). Say you are working on teaching a child to follow the instruction “sit down” and each time the child performs the behavior they are given a skittle. If the rate of correctly following the instruction increases we can reliably determine that the skittle was a reinforcer. If the rate of the behavior does not increase then by definition the skittle would not be a reinforcer.
Using play times to evaluate reinforcers can be valuable and takes little effort. Pull out a variety of items and sit with your child on the floor. Observe what your child plays with and how long he/she is engaged with each toy. This observation can tell you what items will be the most powerful. Taking it a step further, you can restrict the most powerful reinforcers to use during teaching moments. This deprivation from the item will serve to further increase its effectiveness as a reinforcer. Also, be sure to deliver the item or activity immediately following the behavior to establish a strong contingency. Always pair delivery of the chosen reinforcer with social praise such as “great job that is sitting down!” This pairing helps to make the social interaction during the exchange even more reinforcing. Last, be sure that the child only receives the reinforcer after they correctly complete the behavior. Remember building the contingency between the correct response and reinforcement is what is going to lead to long-lasting behavioral change.
Comunidad Los Horcones (1992). Natural reinforcement: A way to improve education. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 71-75.
Miller, L. Keith. (2006). Principles of everyday behavior analysis. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.