This month, I will continue to highlight the EBP of ‘reinforcement’ (hence the part 3 in the title). Since there is so much to say, know and do with this powerful strategy, I 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 third part, we will explore a few basic misconceptions around the use of reinforcers as well as some potential problems and solutions to these should they occur. For some reason, there are people that are automatically against even exploring the use of reinforcers. This is puzzling to me as I know I appreciate a compliment, kind word, unexpected gift given or, the most obvious example of a planned reinforcer, a paycheck from work. I love my job but would not be going without getting that regular ‘payoff’/reinforcer…
Isn’t this just the same thing as bribing though? Used incorrectly, it can be, yes. Here are some differences though:
Reward: earned as an incentive for a job well done.
Bribe: given in response to a challenging behavior.
Reward: create a lasting positive change on behavior
Bribe: changes behavior in the moment but not over time
Reward: planned ahead of time and delivered with praise
Bribe: reactive and delivered in frustration
Reward: adult is in control and decides if the reward is earned
Bribe: child is in control/negotiation is made in exchange for compliance
*above two in terms of working with children
(Behavioural Interventions and Solutions, LLC, 2019)
The secret to the successful usage of a reinforcer is really more of how it is used instead of the what. This is more about the intricacies of using the strategy (applies to all strategies). I use the analogy of ‘leading the dance”: when done properly, the person led feels supported and is definitely enjoying the experience. It can be very intricate in how you support/fade/prompt as it can is intentional (which can be exhausting at first) but definitely worth it! It has made a huge (very positive) difference in my work at home and school.
There are some common problems when trying to set up or use a reinforcer. Here are a few with possible solutions:
P1) Learner was making progress with target skill or behavior but recently became uninterested with the reinforcer.
S1) Satiation has occurred (the reward was used too often and now the learner is ‘bored of it’). Conduct a ‘reinforcer survey’ (mentioned in past article) to identify new reinforcers. You may need to get creative – think outside the box – consider the individual.
P2) Learner is not able to demonstrate the target behavior or skill long enough to receive the reinforcer (is not successful). For example, cannot sit for the five minutes, cannot carry on a three part conversation, cannot follow the three step direction independently, etc.
S2) The criteria for success is set too high. Ensure it is definitely ‘doable’ at first. Lower the standard for ‘success’/achievement to ensure the learner receives the reinforcer by demonstrating the skill but at a lesser expectation. Then, slowly build the expectation.
P3) Learner was initially excited about the token economy but are no longer exhibiting the behaviours to earn the tokens or reinforcers.
S3) The pricing of the reinforcer may be set too high resulting in the learner giving up before earning enough to purchase the desired reinforcer. Consider lowering the prices of the available reinforcer.
This is the formal end of the reinforcer series. I sincerely recommend the use of this strategy. It has amazing potential and I have witnessed the power of it firsthand. Remember to fade the reinforcer as soon as you can and ensure that social piece remains. Set new goals, consider new reinforcers if needed and move forward!
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.