Little Leaps Group Therapy transitioning to year-round school: What you should know
March 28, 2017
Using Reinforcers to Help our Kids Learn!
October 5, 2015
When parents begin a home program, therapists often ask them the question "what are your child's favorite reinforcers?" Parents then begin searching for answers, with responses such as "well, I think they really like trains?" or "why is this important, anyway?"
In this blog, we will discuss what a reinforcer is, what makes it effective, and how you can use them to help motivate your kids with their learning and daily routines.
What is a Reinforcer?
In ABA terminology , reinforcement is any stimulus that will increase the likelihood of a behavior reappearing. Reinforcers are the tools we use to help motivate our kids to increase positive behaviors.
Basically, when we ask about reinforcers, we are looking for items or activities that your child LOVES. We aren't talking about things your child might play with only when utterly and completely bored. What we want are those precious, few items your child can't live without: they ask for it constantly, hold it with them at all times, or incessantly lead you to retrieve it time and again. Some reinforcers are more social, such as tickles, hugs, or high fives. These are every bit as good as tangible items!
What Makes Reinforcers Effective?
Our kids are learning a variety of skills, such as learning how to use new words to request items or learning the steps necessary to dress themselves. These tasks are typically not fun for our kids to learn, hence the resistance we often see when we ask them to "say this" or "do that". The beauty of reinforcers is that they motivate our kids to complete the difficult tasks we are teaching them. This means that when we teach our kids to say "I want ball" or when we teach them to wash their hands, we will then give them their favorite reinforcer once they have completed the task. Your child will begin to make the connection that they will only have access to their beloved toy/activity when they finish their work, and they will begin to show more compliance in following through with what you ask of them. Many difficult tasks can be learned much more quickly when a reinforcer is given as a reward.
So, while your child screams because he refuses to sit in his chair, know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We can use his reinforcers to show him that good behavior (sitting in the chair) will be rewarded (he gets his favorite toy/activity).
Just as adults go to work for their paycheck, your child learns will learn that good behavior = reward.
Sounds easy enough?....Here's a few reminders about reinforcers:
Reinforcers must be reinforcing. Just because you saw your child eagerly stack a few blocks one morning does not make "blocks" something that will motivate them. Even though it seemed like a fun activity, stacking blocks may not be motivating enough for your child to follow through with demands, especially if they are difficult or novel. Don't get discouraged if your child isn't excited over the items you thought were their favorites. This simply means we have to find new items/activities to spark their interest.
Giving your child free access to their reinforcers is a big "no- no". This means your child will be learning that they do not have to finish their work in order to get a reward. Just think: why would they work if they get their reinforcer for free?
What can you do?
1. Start with a list:
Make a list of your child's reinforcers
Look for activities your child loves to engage in (tickles, peek-a-boo, kisses, games, etc)
Look for items your child is often attached to/ requests often (ie trains, sensory items, blanket, bubbles etc).
"one-size-does-not-fit-all" with reinforcers. Avoid picking what you "think" a reinforcer should be. Just because many kids like candy, doesn't mean your child likes it too. If you don't see your child excited for it, it's probably not a reinforcer.
2. Keep reinforcers in a special bin
put this bin in a place that is out of reach to your child. This bin will only be taken out when parent or therapist is teaching the child programs or functional skills. This will help them understand that hard work gets rewarded.
Do not let your child get free access to reinforcers in this bin. Would you go to work if money grew on trees? You can bet that your child will be less likely to perform tasks if they get their reinforcers without having to work for them.
3. Rotate reinforcers
kids get bored with the same reinforcers. To put it in perspective, would you watch the same movie every night? Things we once loved often lose their value over time, and it's no different with toys! To keep things fresh, you can take out certain reinforcers for a small period of time and add in new ones, then after a few days or weeks rotate the old ones back in again.
4. Let your therapy team know which reinforcers you are using with your child
this will help keep communication open and help everyone stay on the same page
Here is a lost of common reinforcers you can refer to: