Applied Behavior Analysis – 15 rules of reinforcement (Part 2)

In the previous article, we have shared with you the first 8 rules of reinforcement. In this article, we will continue sharing the remaining 7 rules of reinforcement with you.


9. Consistently follow the reinforcement schedule
A predictable schedule of reinforcement is likely to increase the child’s chance of displaying the desired behavior (e.g., if the child gets the reinforced every time he displays the desired behavior, nice waiting, the chance of the child waiting nicely in the future will increase, because the child anticipates that he will get reinforced when he waits well). On the contrary, if the child waits well and is not reinforced, the desired behavior will reduce. Similarly, if a child is reinforced when he is displaying the undesired behavior, desired behavior will reduce. This is especially important for children during the beginning phase of learning the skills. When we plan on reducing the intensity of the reinforcement in the future (i.e., the child needs to work for a little longer in exchange for the reinforcement) (see rule 10 below), all members of the family/treatment team should be consistent in implementing it.

10. Systematically fade the use of reinforcement over time
The longer we use a high-intensity schedule of reinforcement, the more difficult it becomes for children to get rid of these external reinforcers. At the same time, when we reduce the intensity of the schedule of reinforcement, the chance of displaying the desired behavior may decrease. It is important for us to fade the schedule of reinforcement systematically and gradually.

11. Constantly evaluate the timing of reinforcement
The process of fading the schedule of reinforcement may not be as smooth as we plan, we need to make adjustment based on the child’s performance. Sometimes, we may even have to move back to a higher intensity schedule of reinforcement. Also, we need to make a good balance of the difficulty and novelty of the tasks and the schedule and value of the reinforcement. When we are working on a skill that is more difficult or new to the child, it is likely that we may need to use some strong reinforcers or increase the intensity of the schedule of reinforcement.

12. During beginning phase, label the behavior that is being reinforced
Labelling the behavior is helpful in helping the child understand the target behavior and increases his chance of displaying the appropriate behavior in the future. At the same time, this can strengthen the child’s understanding of the association between the reinforcement and the appropriate behavior.
Labelling the behavior can also keep parents/teachers to focus on the behavior/teaching objective and reduce the chance of being distracted by other behaviors. This process is less important when your child understands the relationship between the target behavior and the reinforcement.


13. Gradually switch to more natural/ easily accessible reinforcer
It is critical that we try to use natural reinforcers as much as possible to further help our child generalize the skills into different environment. As we all know, natural reinforcers are easier to find in the natural environment. The disadvantage of external reinforcers is that they are more difficult to find in the natural environment. Therefore, the child may not perform the same when the reinforcers are not available in other natural settings.


14. Be aware of bribery
Avoid telling your child what reinforcers he will be getting before the training session. Ideally, the child will select his reinforcer after each training session and when he displays the desired behavior. Choosing the reinforcer after the training session will help in fading the reinforcer smoothly later on. But for some children, especially those engage in high level of self-stimulatory behavior, we may need to have them choose the reinforcers before the training session to remind them of their motivation, but we should also fade this procedure once they understand the reinforcement contingency. Never bribe when your child is engaging in undesired behavior, for example, when a child loses his temper, you tell him that he can get the reinforcer as soon as he stops. It is often effective with an immediate effect, but it is also risky. You do not want to bargain with your child every time (e.g. if you stop crying, I’ll give you the phone). What is even worse is that your child needs to rely on bribes to obey. It increases the child’s dependence on reinforcers and prevent the child from making smart choices.


15. Use differential reinforcement
It is a pretty straightforward idea. Paying effort and trying hard will bring the child the strongest and the most powerful reinforcers and praise (e.g. Perfect, full score, excellent!) Average performance (e.g. the child is focused but did not respond correctly) will result in average reinforcers as well as comments (e.g. good try, almost, etc.) At the same time, when the child is not paying any effort, we would give more serious comments and use a more serious tone of voice (e.g.: Not listening, Not paying attention, wrong etc.) In addition to the value of the reinforcers, the tone of the parents’ feedback (e.g. excited vs. serious) and facial expressions (e.g. happy vs. serious looks) can also help our child better understand our expectation.

Related Articles: 15 rules of reinforcement (Part 1)

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Information provided by:

Christy Lai , M.Sc., BCBA, Behavioral Consultant
Ms. Christy Lai holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis in St. Cloud State University. She joined Autism Partnership (AP) in 2011 and began working directly with students in one-on-one, social group as well as providing school shadowing and participating in parent training workshops. She is also responsible for formulating IEP, designing lesson plan and providing training to staff. She is now the lead teacher of Little Learners under the supervision of Mr. Toby Mountjoy.

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