As you may have noticed, I have been writing a regular column highlighting one of the 27 evidence-based practices (EBPs), otherwise known as ‘things are have a lot of proof behind them that they really work’ in helping people with autism (Wong, 2016). There has been some exciting new developments in this area of study and that list has been very recently revised (2020) and now there are 28 EBPs! As an educator involved in the field of inclusive education and as a parent working to support my own kiddo, I am all about finding what really works and excited when new developments like this occur. Each month, I plan to highlight one of these (now) 28 EBPs for you.
This month, I will highlight the EBP of ‘reinforcement’. Since there is so much to say, know and do with this powerful strategy, I have decided to write multiple articles on the usage of reinforcement. Much of the information in this article is from the related AFIRM online module (link below). In this series, we have covered a variety of EBP such as visuals, self-management, prompting (parts 1 and 2) and exercise so far. While each practice can stand alone, these strategies may be used in conjunction with each other and may be referenced here.
One of the key ideas I like to keep in mind is that “behavior goes where reinforcement flows” (AFIRM). This is true for all people, honestly. This reaffirms our mantra of ‘good for all, critical for some’. Anytime that I am personally receiving reinforcement in my own work, home, community, I am naturally more inclined to continue the actions that got me that reinforcement. For those with autism, this is a proven, research-based practice so it is worth learning our time to investigate!
There are multiple goals that can be achieved by using reinforcement strategically:
Examples of specific goals that could be addressed by using reinforcement
Increase amount of time a student remains seated in class.
Decrease the number of times a person interrupts a parent when on the phone or visiting a friend.
Increase the practice of ‘expected’ social interactions (home, work, school, community).
Increase the quality of daily/weekly grooming efforts.
Decrease the ‘unexpected’ behaviors that an employer may express.
*Endless possibilities depending on the specific goals for the individual.
There are three basic principles of reinforcement to remember:
By delivering the reinforcement too long after the desired skill/behavior has occurred, it can lose effectiveness as the learner may not directly connect the reinforcer to their success. By having it directly after that desired skill/behavior, the learner begins to shape their behavior more often and naturally. It will also help avoid frustration for either party. If you promise the reinforcement, be prepared to give/do it right afterwards (as much as possible). Choosing the proper reinforcement is key to this strategy’s success as well. It is part of showing respect to the learner and ensuring it will be effective (short and/or long term). Having the reinforcement be something truly enforcing to the person, it has to be age appropriate as well. Making it too ‘babyish’ or beyond the learner will insult or frustrate the learner making sure the strategy will not be effective before you even start!
Be sure to have more than one reinforcer though as ‘saturation’ can occur and the learner may tire of the same thing used repeatedly. The reinforcement can lose its appeal fairly quickly. Be creative with it. We often think immediately of food reinforcers but that is one of a very many to explore. A few ways to come up with a list of reinforcements: ask the person, observe them during free time to see what they may gravitate to, ask others around them, or even think about what you may often say ‘no’ to and see if that can possibly be used that (if safe, appropriate, etc.). You can look up ‘reinforcement inventories’ online for new ideas too. One lesson I have learned in my own life work, is that the reinforcer can be unexpected for us! Sometimes they are ‘not typical’ or expected but are so reinforcing for that person. For instance, one child was very motivated by smelling certain ‘smelly markers’, having his arm rubbed gently or his back tickled, calling a store to find out their hours of operation, riding an elevator, etc.
There is much more to the use of reinforcement, so please look to next months’ magazine for continued discussion of this important topic.
If you are interested in checking out the free online AFIRM modules, here is the link (will take you to the reinforcement module in particular as I am highlighting this here).
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Carmen has been published in a variety of online and print articles. Writing is a passion and she strives to grow and share her message.