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Reinforcer Assessment

Finding the Most Powerful Tools for Applied Behavior Analysis

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The foundational premise of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is that when behavior is reinforced, it is more likely to reoccur. When behavior is repeatedly reinforced, it becomes learned behavior. When we teach, we want students to learn specific behaviors. When students have problem behaviors, we need to teach alternative, or replacement behavior. The replacement behavior needs to serve the same Function as the problem behavior, as the function is the way in which the behavior is reinforced for the child. In other words, if a behavior functions to provide a child attention, and the attention is reinforcing, the behavior will continue.

Changeability of Reinforcement

Many items can be reinforcing for a child. What is reinforcing is related to the function and the value of the function for a child. At different points certain different functions will have more importance than others to individual children: at some point it may be attention, at another it might be a preferred item, or avoidance. For the purposes of Discrete Trials, reinforcers that can be readily available and given and withdrawn quickly are the most effective. They may be toys, sensory items (spinning lights, musical toys, squishy toys/balls,) preferred items (dolls or Disney characters) or even "escape," access to a break area. Sometimes edibles (candy or crackers) are used, but it is important that they are quickly paired with more appropriate social reinforcers.

Not every item that is reinforcing for a child remains reinforcing. It may depend on the time of day, satiation, or the child's mood. It's important to have a rich menu of reinforcement that you can use with individual students when attempting to use ABA to teach or change behavior. That's why it is important to attempt as many different kinds of reinforcers as possible, from preferred toys to sensory items.

Ask About a Child's Preferences

Parents and caregivers are a good place to start when exploring reinforcers. You can ask for the child's personal preferences: What does he/she enjoy doing when they can choose themselves? Does he/she have a favorite television character? Does he or she perseverate on that particular character? Parents and caregivers can give you some insight in the child's interests that will give you a sense of the kinds of preferences the child will find reinforcing.

Non Contingent Assessment

The first step in assessing reinforcers is to give a child access to a number of items that The first step in assessing reinforcers is to give a child access to a number of items that young children would find appealing. Try to include items that the parent or caregiver has already indicated is a preferred item. It is call "non contingent" because access to the reinforcer is not contingent on the child's behavior. To what items does the child gravitate? Note anything that the child picks up to assess again. Note any themes: is there a preference for musical toys, for specific characters? Does the child use cars or other toys appropriately? How does the child play with the toys? Does the child choose self stimulation instead of toys? Can you engage the child in play with any of the toys?

Once you have seen the child in the presence of the toys, you can list preferred items and eliminate those that they have shown little interest in.

Structured Assessments

Through your unstructured assessment you have discovered which items your student gravitates to. Now, you want to find your most powerful (A ) reinforcers and which you will keep back for when the student is satiated with his or her A reinforcers. That is done by systematically laying small numbers of items (often just two) in front of the child and seeing what preferences he or she expresses.

Concurrent Schedule Reinforcer Assessment: Two or more reinforcers are presented as a response to a target behavior, and the preference is noted. The reinforcers are switched out, to compare later with other reinforcers.

Multiple Schedule Reinforcer Schedule: A reinforcer is used in contingent setting (such as social attention for appropriate play) and later in a non-contingent setting (without a requirement of appropriate play.) If the appropriate play increases despite the fact the child is getting non-contingent attention later in the day, it is assumed that the reinforcer is effective for increasing play.

Progressive Ratio Schedule Reinforcer Assessment: A reinforcer is checked to see if it continues to increase response when response demand is increased. So, if a reinforcer stops eliciting the response you want when you expect more responses, it is not as powerful a reinforcer as you thought. If it does . . . stick with it.

Reinforcement Suggestions

Edibles: Edibles are never the first choice of an ABA practioners, since you want to move into secondary reinforcers as quickly as possible. Still, for children with severe disabilities, especially older children with poor functional and social skills, edibles may be the way to engage them and begin building behavioral momentum. Some suggestions:

  • Crackers
  • Pieces of fruit
  • Small individual candies, like Skittles or M and M's.
  • Preferred foods. Some children with autism love dill pickles.

Sensory Items: Children with autism spectrum disorders often have issues with sensory integration, and crave sensory input. Items which provide that input, like spinning lights or musical toys can be powerful reinforcers for young children with disabilities. Some reinforcers are:

  • Spinning lights or vibrating pens. These kinds of sensory items can be found in catalogs for special educators. If you don't have access to the catalogs, your occupational therapist may actually have some of these items.
  • Gross motor activities, like bouncing on a pilates ball, or a ceiling hung swing.
  • Tickles or direct sensory input. This is most appropriate for very young children, but it may also help pair reinforcement with the therapist/teacher.

Preferred Items and Toys Many children with disabilities love television and often perseverate on favorite television characters, like Mickey Mouse or Dora the Explorer. Combining these strong preferences with toys may make some items powerful reinforcers. Some ideas:

  • Sound books with favorite characters. I have found these to be good reinforcers for young children.
  • Jointed action figures
  • Cars, trucks and track.
  • Thomas the Tank Engine trains.
  • Small animal figures.
  • Blocks.

Ongoing Assessment

Children's interests change. So may the items or activities that they find reinforcing. At the same time, a practitioner should be moving to spread out reinforcement and pair primary reinforcers with secondary reinforcers, like social interaction and praise. As children succeed in gaining new skills through ABA, they will move away from the short and frequent bursts of instruction that is discrete trial teaching toward more traditional and naturalistic methods of instruction. Some may even begin to reinforce themselves, by internalizing the values of competence and mastery.

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