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The Power of Reinforcement!

Updated: Feb 2




The Power of Reinforcement!


The term “reinforcement” is one of the most misunderstood principles in teaching/parenting. To understand its “power” you must first understand what reinforcement is and is not. When a behavior is followed by a reinforcer there is an increase in the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. Reinforcement can be positive or negative depending on how it is used. Reinforcement is a tool for helping teachers and parents increase the behaviors they want to see (e.g. sharing, asking for help) and decreasing the behaviors they don’t want to see (e.g., yelling, off-task behavior). There are many different types of reinforcers:


· Edibles: Highly preferred food items.

· Sensory: Something that impacts the senses and provides pleasure. Examples include: music, a fidget spinner, electric light up fan.

· Tangible: An item that a person values. Examples include: tokens, stickers, money.

· Activity: Any activity that the person enjoys and finds fun. Example include: video games, trampoline, swimming, walking.

· Social: This includes positive attention from someone else. This can also include interactions with others that cause joy.


There are several key points to consider when thinking about Reinforcement:


· The reinforcer should come immediately after the behavior to act as a reinforcer. The individual must connect the behavior with the response for it to have power.

· Individualizing reinforcers is important. Observe the child to see what they like. Ask the parent or a caregiver. Preference assessments are another commonly used tool but should not be the starting place for identifying what motivates someone.

· Reinforcers are not bribes. The key is using language that does not include “if you do ….then…..”. Rather, “when you do……, then……..”.

· Over time, reinforcement should be faded. Instead of providing praise every time a student raises their hand, fade it back to every other time to start.


Reinforcement is one of our most valuable tools in our toolbox for supporting positive behaviors and reducing the occurrence of behaviors we don’t want to see. When I work with families, reinforcement is typically the place I start by asking these questions: What behaviors are occurring? Are they receiving reinforcement? How can I rearrange the reinforcers to put emphasis on the things I want to see?


Dr. Hampshire

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