Skip to main content
Staff Portal Staff Portal

Text Transcript: The Power of Reinforcement (Part 1)

Let's talk about one of the most valuable strategies to have in your toolbox.

You may have heard the saying, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," or the advice, "Catch them being good."

Both of these are based on the same basic principle of behaviour - the principle of reinforcement.

It really doesn't matter what situation you find yourself in, or who you're working or interacting with.

Whether you're working with learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in a school, preschool, or community setting; or whether you're a parent trying to get your child to do what you've asked him or her to do; or even if you're just hoping to improve your everyday interactions with people in general; understanding reinforcement and learning how to put it to work for you can make a huge difference.

Reinforcement helps us increase behaviours we want to see more of.

The first thing to understand is that the environment, and what happens in the environment, impacts behaviour.

Have you ever noticed that children often behave one way when they're at a friend's house or when they're with a grandparent, but they act completely differently when their parents are around?

That's not a coincidence.

All of the factors in the environment - the physical space or location, the people, the activities, the items in the area, and so on all of those influence the way people behave.

Let's think about a few examples: If you're in Atlantic Canada in January and you're going outside, what things would you be likely to do?

Or put another way, what behaviours would you be likely to engage in?

You'd probably put on a winter coat, a hat, mittens or gloves, and boots.

But what if you were in Florida or California instead?

In that environment you might walk out the door without doing any of those things.

You've learned that different ways of behaving are effective in each of these environments.

Think about how you might behave around different groups of people and in different settings.

If you're with a group of friends at a restaurant or hanging out at home, you might talk freely, joke around, and laugh.

But if you get pulled over by a police officer for speeding, your behaviour will probably be quite different.

If you're going to a parent teacher conference at your child's school, you will probably behave differently again.

Your past experiences with these situations, along with cues in the environment, have taught you to act in certain ways in response to specific contexts.

If we think about this in terms of some of the learners you interact with, you may have noticed that they behave differently in one teacher's class than in another's class.

Or perhaps they act reserved and quiet with one group of friends, but are more outgoing or chatty when they're with a different group.

Their behaviour changes depending on the people they are with and on their histories with each of these groups.

You can see from these examples that the environment has an impact on the way people behave in their day-to-day lives.

But the same principle holds true if we're thinking about a learner who needs to build some new skills or a learner who engages in challenging behaviour.

One example is a situation with a parent and child in a grocery store.

The parent and child are waiting in the checkout line, and the child spots her favourite chocolate bar on the shelf.

She points at the chocolate bar and starts whining.

When she doesn't get the chocolate bar, she escalates her behaviour to the next level and starts crying and throws herself on the floor.

As we all know, the parent's response in that moment is going to play a huge roll in how this situation plays out every time these two are at the checkout line in the future.

If the parent lets the child have the chocolate bar at that point, we can be pretty sure that this same scene will play out over and over again in the future.

It wouldn't necessarily be the parent's intention to reinforce the child's behaviour, but that's what she's done.

Just as reinforcement happens naturally in our everyday lives when environmental factors influence behaviour, we can make use of reinforcement in a planned and intentional way to influence behaviour as well.

Let's think about Neil, a learner with ASD who may not consistently initiate communication, and doesn't often tell people what he wants.

Instead, he might just take what he wants, or push people out of the way to get it, or engage in challenging or aggressive behaviours when people can't figure out what he wants.

If we know that swinging on a swing on the playground is one of his favourite things, we could give him a way to request swinging, give him lots and lots of opportunities to practice, and allow him to swing for a couple of minutes each time he makes the request appropriately.

Over time, if we've considered all of the key factors and carried out the intervention effectively, he will learn to ask for a swing independently.

I said something really important in that last example - "If we've considered all of the key factors.

" When you're thinking about behaviour, it is absolutely essential to know your learner and to know the environment.

For example, if we want to teach Neil to request swinging, but he has limited vocal language skills, we're going to give him a way to request that activity without having to vocalize the word.

Or if it's the middle of January and the playground is buried in snow, we may not choose "swing" as the item for our learner to request, even though we know that may be his favourite activity.

Or maybe he does love swinging, and the swings are available, but you know that swinging is so exciting for him that doing this activity at recess or at lunch would set everyone up for problems for the rest of the day.

Maybe you pick another target to practice repeatedly throughout the day, and save swinging for the last activity of the day.

Knowing your individual learner and considering the specific environment or environments you're operating in are key factors if reinforcement is going to be successful in influencing behaviour in the desired direction.

As I talk about reinforcement, I want to clearly define it so we're on the same page.

So what is reinforcement exactly, and how does it work?

In behavioural terms, reinforcement is the procedure in which a certain consequence follows a behaviour, and the result is that the behaviour increases in the future.

When we say a behaviour increases in the future, that can mean that it happens more often, or for longer periods of time, or with a higher level of intensity.

Any behaviour that keeps happening is being reinforced in some way, even if we don't know what the reinforcer is, and even if we can't see anything in particular happening after the behaviour.

A behaviour that is not reinforced in some way does not continue.

"Reinforcement" is the term for the procedure in which something happens immediately after the behaviour, resulting in an increase in behaviour in the future.

"Reinforcer" is the "something" that follows the behaviour.

In technical terms, it's the "stimulus", which could be an item, activity, interaction, sensation, that immediately follows the behaviour.

Sometimes the reinforcer is easy to identify, and sometimes it's not.

It's also important to know that just because we think something should be pleasant, or even because the learner likes it, doesn't necessarily mean that it will function as a reinforcer.

It is only a reinforcer if it causes an increase in behaviour.

As a matter of fact, some things that we think of as unpleasant, like a reprimand or sending a student to the principal's office, can actually function as reinforcers, and can cause the behaviour to increase.

Sometimes "reinforcement" also gets confused with other terms or procedures that carry some negative connotations, like "bribery" or "reward".

Bribery involves offering something to someone to convince them to do something that will benefit the person doing the bribing.

A reward may benefit the individual receiving it, but it may not have any effect at all on future behaviour.

It's important to make a distinction between "reward" and "reinforcement".

You might give me a reward for finding your lost wallet, and I might really enjoy that, but it will probably not have any effect on my wallet-finding behaviour in the future.

If we're thinking about using reinforcement in a planned and strategic way to increase behaviours that will benefit the learners we support, we need to be sure that we're identifying "reinforcers" and not just giving "rewards".

We'll talk in the next video segment about strategies you can use to identify potential reinforcers for your learners.

Take a moment here to test your understanding by doing the "Reinforcer or Reward" activity.

It is helpful to understand that there are different types of reinforcement.

You may have heard the terms "positive reinforcement" and "negative reinforcement".

In everyday language, we tend to think of "positive" as "good" and "negative" as "bad", but that's not the case when we're talking about reinforcement.

Remember that all reinforcement causes behaviour to increase - to happen more frequently, more intensely, for longer durations.

Whether we call the reinforcement procedure positive or negative, the result is an increase in the behaviour.

Positive reinforcement is the more straightforward of the two procedures to understand.

"Positive" simply means that something, a stimulus of some kind, is added to the situation.

If you think about a plus sign, or doing addition, you are adding something.

If we're talking about reinforcers, you might be adding specific praise, lots of high-quality attention, a preferred item or activity, a little treat, or a variety of other things.

In a positive reinforcement procedure, the reinforcer is "added" or delivered for a brief moment immediately after the desired behaviour happens.

Let's walk through a couple of examples: Jack makes an appropriate request to swing on the swing at recess (the desired behaviour), and he is given access to the swing (the swing - a reinforcer - is added).

He starts requesting to swing more often in the future - so we know the swing acts as an effective reinforcer.

Sarah finishes a writing task when the teacher instructs her to (the desired behaviour), and the teacher gives her lots of praise for her great work (praise - a reinforcer - is added).

Sarah begins to write for a longer period of time - we know praise acts as a reinforcer for Sarah's writing.

Melissa has set a goal of going for a walk each evening after work.

If she meets her goal each night, she indulges in a nice bubble bath and some relaxing music.

As a result, she has started going for walks more often in the evenings.

The addition of the bubble bath and music functions as a reinforcer, increasing Melissa's walking.

In each of these examples, something was added to the situation access to the swing for Jack praise from the teacher for Sarah and a bubble bath and relaxing music for Melissa and as a result, the desired behaviour increased for each individual Jack makes more frequent appropriate requests Sarah writes for longer periods of time And Melissa takes more evening walks This tells us that positive reinforcement was in effect in each situation Something was added (positive) And the behaviour increased in the future (reinforcement) But there's another type of reinforcement that can be a bit more confusing.

We call it "negative reinforcement".

Negative reinforcement often gets confused with punishment, or with undesirable consequences.

We tend to think of negative as "bad".

But negative reinforcement is still reinforcement, and as I've pointed out, reinforcement always increases behaviour.

The "negative" in this case simply means that something is taken away or removed right after the behaviour.

If you think about positive reinforcement in terms of addition - or a plus sign, think about negative reinforcement in terms of subtraction - a minus sign.

It doesn't mean "bad"; It just means that something is taken away.

And in the case of negative reinforcement, something is taken away, and the result is still an increase in behaviour in the future.

Let' s think about some examples to help make this make more sense: The students in your class have been working diligently all period on a lengthy assignment that has five different sections.

At the end of the period you tell them that, since they have all been working so well, they will only have to do four sections instead of five, you take away some of their work.

As a result, the next time you assign a lengthy assignment they work even harder (their work behaviour increases in the future).

So removing some of the task has acted as an effective reinforcer, increasing work behaviour in the future.

You have a headache, so you take a pain reliever, and your headache goes away (the pain reliever takes the discomfort away).

When you get a headache in the future, you take a pain reliever (your behaviour of taking pain relieving medication increases in the future).

The removal of pain is an effective reinforcer, increasing your behaviour of taking medication to relieve a headache in the future.

After a snowstorm you send your teenagers outside to shovel the driveway.

You tell them that after they shovel from the front steps to the tree half way down the driveway, they can take a break from shovelling (you remove the task for a period of time).

After a break, they go back to the shovelling task with increased energy and finish the job (the shovelling behaviour increases).

In each of these examples, something was removed from the situation, part of the work assignment for the students the discomfort of a headache the task of shovelling for a period of time and as a result, the desired behaviour increased for each individual the students work hard on the next assignment you take pain reliever when you have a headache in the future And your teenagers finish shovelling the driveway This tells us that negative reinforcement was in effect in each situation Something was removed or taken away (negative) And the behaviour increased in the future (reinforcement) Each of the examples we've talked about demonstrates the effective use of reinforcement.

There are several things these scenarios have in common, and these are the elements that make reinforcement effective.

If we want to use reinforcement in our own work, it's important to understand how it works and what makes it effective.

In order for reinforcement to be effective, it must have a number of essential characteristics: you must identify something, or a number of things, that will actually function as a reinforcer.

As I said earlier, just because an individual likes something, does not mean that it will be a reinforcer.

Knowing that something is a preferred item or activity may increase the chances that it will function as a reinforcer, but remember that the only way we can know if something is a reinforcer is by measuring its effect on behaviour.

If the behaviour increases, you've got a reinforcer; if the behaviour doesn't increase, you may have a preferred item, but you don't have a reinforcer.

As I mentioned, we'll talk in the next segment about ways you can identify items that might function as reinforcers for your learner.

the reinforcer must be delivered as a result of the desired behaviour, and only as a result of the desired behaviour.

In this way, the reinforcer is "contingent" on the desired behaviour occurring.

As you watch this video, notice when the teacher delivers the reinforcer contingently, and when she doesn't.

Teacher: Alright are you ready?

Student: yup Teacher: Okay, so if you have three baseballs and I give you Three more Baseballs, how many would you have all together?

Student: Six Teacher: Excellent!

Good Job!

Teacher: Okay, here's another one.

If you have ten toys, and you give your friend five of them.

How many will you have left?

Student: Five Teacher: Awesome!

Good Job.

Boy, you're great at math.

Okay, one more, here we go.

If you have eighteen pieces of candy, and you eat nine of them, How many do you have left?

Student: Ten.

Teacher: Oh, thats really close, Good try.

For the first 2 questions, the student responded correctly, and the teacher delivered the token, which is the reinforcer in this case, as a result of the correct responses.

However, in the third example, the student responded with an incorrect answer.

The teacher delivered the token anyway, even though the answer was wrong.

That one would not be contingent reinforcement.

Remember that the reinforce must be delivered as a result of the desired behaviour, and only as a result of the desired behaviour.

the reinforcer has to be delivered immediately within fractions of a second when the desired behaviour happens.

If there's a delay between the learner's behaviour and delivery of the reinforcer, it might not be clear to the learner what behaviour you want him to do, or he may not make the connection between the desired behaviour and the consequence.

As you watch this video, take note of whether or not the teacher delivers the reinforcer immediately when the behaviour happens.

Teacher: Okay, so I'm going to give you some instructions, and I want you to listen to everything that I say before you do anything at all, okay?

Alright, are you ready for the first one?

Here we go.

I want you to stand up, turn around one time, and then sit back down.

Awesome, that was super!



Okay, ready for the next one?

Okay, here we go.

This time I want you to, clap your hands, pat your knees, then fold your hands on your lap.

That was really good.

Let me see if I have anything else over here.

Oh, have you ever tried one of these before?

Student: No Teacher: Oh, give it a shot, see what you think.

Hey, you're really good at that.

Maybe we will try that again later.

Alright, this time we will see if you can catch this football with the claw after we are done.

Are you ready?

Okay, I want you to stand up, jump three times, and then put your hands on your hips.

Super Work!

That was really good.

Can you catch it?

You may have noticed that when the learner followed the first set of instructions, the teacher's reinforcement was immediate.

She delivered praise and a tangible reinforcer as soon as the learner finished the final action.

In the second example, however, did you notice that the teacher was looking around for the reinforcer?

The tangible item and the social praise were both delayed for a few seconds.

Even a delay that brief can be a problem for some learners.

They might not associate the reinforcement with the target behaviour.

Another risk is that they might have time to do another behaviour, maybe even an interfering behaviour, during that delay you could end up reinforcing the wrong behaviour by mistake.

So immediacy is really important.

And you may have noticed that the teacher was back on her game for the third set of instructions.

That time, she delivered the reinforce immediately again.

Reinforcement should also be varied.

You need to switch things up and not use the same reinforcer over and over because there's a risk that it will lose its effectiveness If you use it too often or too many times in a row.

Think about it this way, no matter how much I might love chocolate cheesecake, and no matter how hard I might work to earn it, after a couple of pieces I'm going to get pretty tired of cheesecake and it's not going to be a very effective reinforce after that.

The same holds true when we use reinforcement with our learners.

It's important to have a variety of effective reinforcers available when you're working with your student, and to be sure that you are the one in control of the reinforcers.

There are lots of different types, or categories, of items that might function as reinforcers.

The Learning Guide that goes along with this video includes a list of possible reinforcers to get you started.

But keep in mind how important it is to know your learner and the environment.

Take a look at the list provided, and think about your learner, what might influence their behaviour, and what things are available and feasible in the environment you're working in.

You can add or delete items from the list, or start from scratch.

The most important thing is that it fits your individual learner.

We've emphasized that the environment always influences behaviour, and we've talked about examples of reinforcement that happen in everyday life.

You can see that reinforcement is an important part of learning for everyone.

But for learners with ASD, the planned and strategic use of reinforcement is absolutely essential to help them learn how to learn.

Things like praise, grades, stickers, checkmarks, or even social interaction or activities that might function as reinforcers for some learners may not be reinforcing for learners with ASD.

They may not find these things valuable at all.

We want to help them learn the value of these as reinforcers over time, but starting out, we will probably need to figure out what things function as a reinforcers for them now, and work with those as our starting point.

Here are some key points to remember: If a behaviour is happening more often, for longer durations, or with greater intensity over time, whether it's a behaviour you want to see or one that you don't want to see, something is reinforcing it.

If you are using reinforcement to teach a skill, but the behaviour is not increasing, you may not have an effective reinforcer Reinforcement is not the same as bribery or even the same as a reward.

Reinforcement is defined by its impact on future behaviour, while the other two may have no impact on future behaviour at all.

Reinforcement can be positive something added - or negative - something removed, but either way it causes a behaviour to increase in the future To be effective, reinforcers have to be delivered immediately when a behaviour happens; they must be contingent on the behaviour we want to see and only that behaviour; and we must vary the reinforcers so they don' t lose their effectiveness.

And perhaps the most important point of all - the key to using reinforcement effectively is knowing your learner and knowing the environment.

The items that function as reinforcers will be different for each learner, and what works in one setting may not work in another.

Remember that you are also part of the reinforcement process.

When you are delivering reinforcement effectively, you are also serving as a positive reinforcer.

Your learner is more likely to want to work with you and spend time with you.

The result is a better relationship between you and your learner.

Serving Children & Youth Who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing/Blind or Visually Impaired