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Reinforcer Box - What's in there?

Isn't a reinforcer just like a bribe?

My child should be self-motivated and not need a reinforcer!

I can't always reward my child for simple appropriate behaviors...

Is this something you ever said or thought?

Rest re-assured, you would not be the first one!

Many people are worried if they start using reinforcers they will have to always use them for their child to do anything they don't want to do. They are scared their child will never learn anything by themselves. They also feel like they are bribing their child which isn't a good feeling as a parent. After all, shouldn't we all be self-motivated to improve, learn new skills and behave appropriately both at home or in public?

Kid playing with wooden toy

As we mentioned in a previous blog post, not all children learn the same way.

The use of reinforcers is important when teaching something that isn't preferred for a child and to create positive interactions after each tiny step so your child slowly progress and ends up mastering new skills.

A reinforcer is a tool to be used strategically to positively change behaviors and increase the liklihood that a desired behavior will occur again.

To be effective, a reinforcer needs to be engaging, individualized, immediate, used across various contexts and faded out as soon as possible.

Engaging: To motivate your child to engage in the pre-teaching activity, using a preferred item and an enjoyable activity will help get their engagement. To identify a good reinforcer, play with a wide range of toys or objects to notice what your child is most attracted to. Access to the chosen reinforcers should be limited so that they continue to be reinforcing. NO, this doesn't mean you should prevent your child from accessing anything they like playing with. Decide on a few items/ activities that you will save to help motivate your child through tricky or difficult situiaotns.

Individualize: A reinforcer will vary from person to person. Some children like verbal praises, some like tickles and others prefer playing with a toy. Try a wide variety of toys and activities to find what will be a strong reinforcer for your child. A reinforcer must be personally meaningful to get your child's engagement.

Toddler with a variety of toys

Immediate: Reinforcement must happen IMMEDIATELY after a behavior occurs to increase or maintain the likelihood of that behavior occuring again. It links the behavior with a positive consequence immediately. Timing is crucial for effective learning. To connect somebody’s actions with a positive outcome, reinforcing a behavior in-real time is important.

For example, when teaching your child to follow a new instruction, you want to provide the reinforcer immediatly after your child followed the direction. Also, make sure to provide social praise such as hi 5's, tickles and a "Woo Hoo!"

Across various contexts: To generalize new skills and appropriate behaviors, it is important to reinforce a behavior in a variety of situations and social scenarios. That way, the new skills will also be demonstrated across various contexts and will be generalized for day-to-day life.

Family of four playing at the table

When using Positive Behavior Change techniques, reinforcers are used to increase the likelihood of positive behaviors instead of focusing on the challenging behaviors. It encourages the replacement of undesirable behaviors with an appropriate alternative. By using positivity and focusing on progress instead of focusing our attention on negative behaviors, we create a more enjoyable environment for the whole family and ultimately build stronger bonds.

Fade out reinforcement: Ultimately we want to fade out contrived reinforcement to become natural reinforcement. As much as possible we want our children to learn to do things because they are important for their health, growth and development. This takes time to learn and develop.

There are some situations where we all still need external reinforcement. Think about yourself - would you work as much if you stopped getting paid? Yes, a lot of us work because we love what we do, but it's likely we wouldn't work as often if we didn't get paid. Our neurodiverse children are the same. There are things that are difficult and not preferred, but still have to get done. So, to make these tasks more motivating and build your child's confidence, you can use reinforcement.

Have you ever noticed when you are telling someone how good they do something (like baking cookies, preparing macaroni or how nice is it of them to take out the garbage) they end up doing it more often without you having to ask for it?

The same principle applies with young children with autism or ADHD. If they can link a behavior with a positive outcome, they are more likely to repeat it.

The use of reniforcers in a strategic way will help to increase the likelihood that the desired behavior occur again in the future. It will support you in teaching new skills and it will create a positive environment that promotes individual growth and development.

In summary:


  • Reinforcers can be used as a tool to assit in teaching appropriate behaviors.

  • To be efficient a reinforcer must be engaging, individualized, immediate and used across various contexts.

  • Reinforcers are faded out over time as your child progresses in their learning curve.

  • Reinforcement can be used strategically to teach alternative behaviors to the challenging behaviors.

  • Not every child learns the same way and some need temporary short-term motivation to engage in a learning process or non-preferred activity.

  • Reinforcers must be available only when your child engages in learning a new skill or appropriate behavior. They are special items or activities that would not be as efficient if they were available on-demand.

Jess showing what's in her box of reinforcers

Here is a 7-minute video in which Jess shows the reinforcer box she takes to behavior therapy sessions she does with children with autism, ADHD, oppositional defiance disorder or any other neurodevelopmental delay.

If you would like to discuss how to identify preferred reinforcers and how to strategically use them, book a complimentary Discovery Call to discuss everything reinforcers.


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