In our last article on how to reinforce desired behavior we defined reinforcement and identified the four types of rewards one could use. In this article, we’ll share tips, from our experienced clinical staff, on how to effectively use reinforcement.
If done thoroughly, the following tips will help you replace problem behaviors with wanted behavior.
- Have realistic expectations and be kind to yourself! Changing behavior does not happen overnight. It takes time, but the long-term benefits can be very rewarding. Choose two or three behaviors that you want to encourage. Make sure they are realistic. At first, these behaviors will likely change slowly but don’t let this discourage you. Changes in behavior can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. Stick with it for the long-term!
- Choose a few powerful reinforcers. In our last article, we talked about the different kinds of reinforcers. The more your child desires a tangible, edible, social attention or activity, the more effective they will be as reinforcers. There are many ways you can identify the best reinforcers. Watch your child during free playtime and notice what she or he is drawn to and what they enjoy. For example, if they love eating Oreo cookies, this could be an edible used to reinforce desirable behavior. Alternatively, ask your child what she or he likes. You could present the child with two potential reinforcers and ask which she or he prefers. *Expert tip – for activities, use a picture of the activity.
- Make sure the reinforcer comes immediately after the desired behavior. Reinforcement is a consequence of a behavior. So, the reinforcement must happen promptly after the desired behavior. Waiting too long can accidentally promote the wrong behavior. We recommend delivering the reinforcer within five seconds.
- Use a variety of reinforcers. This keeps it interesting for the child. If you use the same reinforcer all the time, it may lose its effectiveness.
- The bigger the task, the bigger the reward! Match the volume of the reinforcer with the difficulty of the task. For example, if you are trying to get your child to do 45-minutes of homework, using a cookie may not be effective. Instead, perhaps she likes watching videos on the iPad. After she finishes her homework, you can let her watch videos for 15-minutes.
- If the reinforcer is not working, try a new one! You may not get it right the first time. Make a list of reinforcers and order them from what you think may be the strongest to the weakest. If the behavior is not changing, then try a different reinforcer.
- Be mindful of “over exposure” If your child is over exposed to a reinforcer, the reinforcer is likely to become less effective. There are a few scenarios that can cause over-exposure. A few causes may be overuse of a reinforcer, lack of variety and satiation. Satiation is when your child has had too much of the reward. For example, if your child just had a big lunch, then eating would not be an effective reinforcer. Or, if your child is allowed access to her or his favorite video games, without having to work for it, then the reinforcer loses its effectiveness.
- Fade reinforcers slowly and observe. The goal of positive reinforcement is to get your child to associate the reward with the desired behavior. Ultimately, you want the behavior to occur without your having to provide reinforcement. However, fading reinforcement should be done slowly and mindfully. Carefully observe the desired behavior. Is the desired behavior decreasing? If so, you might have faded the reinforcer too fast.
Using positive reinforcement is a powerful way to promote desired behaviors in your child with autism. Naturally, problem behaviors will decrease as the desired behaviors increase. It is very typical to not see the desired behavior at first. In some instances, there may be a refusal of demands. If this is the case, please read our blog article on 3-step compliance, which advises on how to effectively address noncompliance in children with autism. Shaping behavior happens over time and should be part of a strategy to promote your child’s fullest potential.
Our Board Certified Behavior Analysts perform detailed assessments and create plans unique to your goals. Contact one of our BCBAs and learn more today.