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Do you have issues getting your child to perform a specific task or exhibit good behavior? For example, maybe they continually forget to clean their room or never listen to you when you ask them to sit down and stay calm. 
 
Autism affects how children develop and how they understand the world around them. In order to generalize new skills and apply them to everyday situations, kids need to find the motivation to complete tasks independently. 
 
The best way to teach new skills or promote good behavior with children on the autism spectrum is to use reinforcement.  

What is Reinforcement? 

 
Reinforcement is one of the pillars of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). It builds on the concept of operant conditioning and uses a reward to incentivize certain behaviors. 
 
When you provide positive reinforcement, you’re rewarding your child after completing a task or behavior. The reinforcer can be anything from edible treats to fun experiences. Either way, it acts as a positive consequence to desired actions. 
 
The goal is to increase the likelihood of that behavior happening again. It’s an excellent way to motivate kids and cement the skills that you’re trying to teach. 

How to Use Reinforcements Effectively 

Utilizing reinforcements techniques can make a significant difference in your ABA therapy endeavors. However, it only works when done effectively.  
 
Despite the simplicity of a rewards-based system, it’s easy to make mistakes and inadvertently reward undesirable behaviors through bribery. Here are some tips to ensure that reinforcements are positively influencing your child across the board. 

1. Make Them Contingent on an Action

One of the most critical attributes of reinforcement is contingency. 
 
Every reward must be contingent on the desired skill. That means that your child must act before they get the prize. 
 
Say, for example, that you’re trying to get your child to eat all their vegetables. Before you even set the food on the table, let them know that they can get some dessert if they finish the vegetables. Right off the bat, you’re making the reward contingent on the finished meal.

2. Don’t Use Rewards as Bribes

The biggest mistake you can make when teaching your child is to turn a reinforcement into a bribe. 
 
Let’s go back to that vegetable example. If you were to offer the reward after your child throws a tantrum because they don’t want to eat their veggies, it becomes an act of bribery. 
 
Bribery is an emotional response that serves to provide quick results. While it certainly motivates your child to perform the task at hand, it bolsters unwanted behavior. It teaches your kid that you’ll easily cave and provide rewards if they act out. 

3. Provide Reinforcements as Soon as Possible

To have the most impact, reinforcers should come immediately after your child performs the desired skill. In the best-case scenario, you’ll have the reinforcer on hand and reward it within three seconds.

Waiting too long could result in delayed reinforcement.

Let’s say that you didn’t have access to an edible treat when going over colors. When they successfully identify the color red, you get up to find some more goodies. 

However, by the time you find the reinforcer, your child is already focusing on another color! Providing that reward now would only confuse them and reinforce some unrelated skill. 

4. Find the Right Type of Reinforcements

Reinforcers can only motivate your child if it’s something they genuinely want. You could attempt to use arbitrary rewards, but the urge to earn them would be non-existent.

Reinforcement items must be rewards that your kid enjoys. There are several types of reinforcers to try. The most common are: 

  • Social reinforcements 
  • Activity reinforcements 
  • Edible reinforcements 
  • Sensory reinforcements 
  • Tangible reinforcements 

 

What works for one child might not work for the next. It’s all about understanding your kid’s preferences and choosing something that will provide inherent motivation. 

5. Avoid Satiation

In the world of ABA, satiation refers to how much of a reward the child gets. If you’re using the same reinforcer over and over again, it starts to lose its value.

Candy is a common motivator for kids. But what if you attempt to use candy reinforcers after a huge meal? Suddenly, your child won’t work as hard for that reward because they don’t want it as much.

Satiation decreases motivation and reinforcement efficiency.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to avoid satiation. Offer as much variety as possible and have several rewards on hand. Keep tabs on your child’s preferences and shift to a new reinforcer as their needs change. 

6. Practice Reinforcement Deprivation

The key to success with reinforcement is deprivation!

When your child is deprived of an object, they’ll want it even more! One good technique is to reserve a specific reinforcer for teaching sessions. It could be a toy or their favorite candy.

Limit access to that reinforcer only to learning moments. After that, it becomes a high-motivation reward that they’ll want to earn.
 

7. Prevent Free Access

Free access is strongly connected to satiation and deprivation.

When your child has open access to a reinforcer, it loses its impact.

Let’s say that you use a snack as edible reinforcement. It’s a snack that you buy regularly and have around the home at all times. If they know they can eat that snack later on, why would a child work to earn it during a teaching session?

Reinforcers that your child has unrestricted access offer low motivation and high satiation. 

8. Pay Attention to Size and Magnitude

The size and magnitude of a reinforcer can influence motivation, too.

In ABA, these terms refer to how much of a reward a learner is getting. It’s vital to manage reinforcers and make them worthwhile. Too much of a good thing leads to high satiation and little motivation. However, not enough reinforcement can also lead to frustration.

It’s a delicate balancing act you have to manage continually. For example, if you were to provide an entire bag of candy every time your child got a question right, they would become satiated in minutes. It wouldn’t take but a few questions to decrease motivation because they’re already full!

The same applies to not enough candy. For example, say that you only let them nibble on a morsel of candy for each correct answer. Suddenly, the reward doesn’t match the work, so they become disappointed and unmotivated.  

9. Be Consistent

Our last tip is to be consistent! Learning new skills takes time and continued repetition. Failing to reinforce lessons can lead to confusion and a lack of motivation.

Your child expects those reinforcers and wants to reap the rewards of getting things right. However, when they come randomly, kids can become frustrated or resentful in your learning techniques.

Keep reinforcers on hand and use them consistently for the best results. 

Wrapping Up 

Using reinforcements can have a profound effect on how your child learns and develops. Implementing strategic rewards can mean the difference between continued motivation and frustration. Use these tips to apply reinforcers effectively and put your child on the path to success.  

Author

Dorothylou Santiago-Liu