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The Basics of Reinforcers

Understanding the concepts of reinforcement can be an important factor in changing behavior and teaching new skills. Differentgirl-playing-w-blocks types of reinforcement, including positive and negative, have the ability to significantly impact and change behavior.

First and foremost, the basic tenants of reinforcement tell us that when something happens immediately following a behavior to improve a person’s situation, that person is more likely to repeat that behavior. For example, giving a child a piece of candy after they clean their room will make them more likely to clean their room in the future; they want more candy! This is a powerful tool for increasing behavior and gives us a positive way to teach new skills, increase behaviors, and to replace problem behaviors.

Before we discuss reinforcers in more detail, it’s important to note that an item is not a reinforce unless is proven to increase behavior. A child liking a particular item does not make that item a reinforcer unless it changes their behavior. We like to call untested or unproven items preferred items until they’re proven to change a behavior.

Does each person have the same reinforcers?

Each person has different likes and interests, which makes reinforcers person-specific. Further, motivation for reinforcers change all of the time, meaning that the reinforcer is dependent upon motivation. For example, not having a preferred item for a longer period of time increases its value as a reinforcer. If I have not had pizza in several months, pizza will likely be a very valuable reinforcer. Alternatively, frequent access to a reinforcer decreases its value. If you provide the same reinforcer over and over, it will become less valuable, so try to alternate what it is you’re using.

Difference between positive and negative reinforcers?

Positive: something pleasant is added and therefore makes the behavior more likely to continue in the future. Exs: sweets, hugs, high fives

Negative: something unpleasant is removed or avoided, making a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Exs: scratching an itch, loud alarm clock; things we want to “go away”

*Remember; negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment; negative doesn’t mean bad; it simply means something was removed from the environment. You’re still trying to get a behavior to increase with both positive and negative reinforcers.

Different Types of Reinforcers

Edible: food or drinks

Tangible: items that people like

Activity: things that a person can do

Sensory: provide some kind of visual, auditor, or tactile stimulation

Social: attention from other people

Ways to identify potential reinforcers:

1)      Observe during free time. If they’re interacting with something for a while, that might be a reinforcer

2)      Offer choices and allow the person to select one. That item can be delivered following appropriate behavior

A reinforcer should follow a behavior that you want to increase immediately; within 0 – 2 seconds. Reinforcers delivered without immediacy are less likely to increase behavior. Longer delays may lead to no reinforcement effect, or you might reinforce another behavior that occurred after the initial behavior!

For more information on reinforcers and other parent trainings offered by Trumpet, visit our Behavioral and Educational Support page or submit an ‘Ask an Expert’ request and a clinician will contact you directly.