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December 7, 2022

Why Reinforcement Is Instrumental in ABA Therapy

Key takeaways: 

  • Positive and negative reinforcement are used to drive behavior changes.
  • Positive reinforcement means adding something to the environment to see an increase in a behavior and negative reinforcement means removing something averse to also see an increase in that future behavior.
  • Parents can identify their child’s motivators and use these to reinforce behaviors that they want to see in the future.

“Accentuate the positive.” It’s not just a catchy Disney movie tune; the sentiment is one of the cornerstones of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy. For children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), positive reinforcement is one of the keys to helping them learn and develop skills.

Reinforcement is an important aspect of conditioning behavioral changes. It is a foundational aspect of psychology. ABA Therapy works best by using reinforcement contingencies. This article will explain what positive reinforcement is, why it’s beneficial, and how it is used in ABA Therapy.

What is positive reinforcement? 

Positive reinforcement involves replacing a challenging behavior with a more desirable one by offering incentives. It’s intended to help behavior increase in the future. Its ultimate goal is to have children understand that displaying desirable behavior will earn them the reward they want.

Positive reinforcement isn’t bribery

A common belief people have about using positive reinforcement is that it’s the same as bribing children. This isn’t true. Positive reinforcement is proactive. For example, stating: “First do this, then you’ll get this” BEFORE any challenging behaviors occur.

Bribery is a reaction to unwanted behavior. For example, if a child throws a temper tantrum because they didn’t get what they wanted and their parent then gives them the item to calm them down, this is bribery. And while it may settle things briefly, the child hasn’t learned that they did anything wrong. In fact, what they did learn was that their behavior resulted in them getting what they wanted.

What positive reinforcement can help with

Reinforcement has been proven to help children with ASD learn new skills and improve the ones they already have. These include:

  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Adaptive learning
  • Academic performance
  • Social Interactions
  • Basic life skills

The ABCs of positive reinforcement

In order to get the most out of positive reinforcement, the ABC model is used. This involves looking at three areas:

Antecedent –This occurs right before the behavior happens. It stems from their environment (i.e., bright lights, loud noises, peers in personal space, being told no by an adult/peer, physical object breaking, etc.

Behavior – Next, the response – or perhaps lack of response – to the antecedent is examined. This is anything that you observe the child doing (kicking, crying, throwing objects, biting, etc.)

Consequence – This is what happens immediately after the behavior.

These steps can help identify why an undesirable behavior is happening. Then, a BCBA can assess what effect different consequences have on the likelihood of it occurring again.

Encouraging the right behavior

One of the most important aspects of positive reinforcement is choosing the right schedule and sticking to it. There are different types:

  • Continuous – The behavior is reinforced every time it happens.
  • Fixed interval – The behavior is reinforced after a set amount of time.
  • Variable ratio – The behavior is reinforced after a different number of times (for example, after one occurrence, then two, then three).
  • Variable interval – The behavior is reinforced after different amounts of time (after five minutes, then 15, then 10).

Generally, for children with ASD, the quicker they get their reward, the more likely they will connect it to their positive behavior. If a child earns a reward but doesn’t get it right away and starts crying and then gets the reward, they’re going to connect the crying with the incentive.

To make positive reinforcement a success, these are the two questions parents should answer about their children:

1. Where do they need improvement?

The first step is to look at your child’s skills – including social and academic – to gauge where they are and what improvements are needed.

2. What are good reinforcers? 

Next, you’ll want to figure out what best motivates your child. These are the rewards that will evoke the action you’re looking for. Some examples could include food, special activities, an iPad, stickers, praise, etc.

Figuring out what’s working – and what’s not

Once you’ve determined the behaviors that need to be changed and the motivators, it’s time to put the positive reinforcement process into action. At first, this may consist of a lot of trial and error; even if you know how your child normally responds to the incentives you’re offering, they may not respond to them as they usually do. Or you may find that after a while the rewards aren’t working so well.

Don’t be afraid to change things up when they’re not working. And try not to get too frustrated if things aren’t going as planned. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. No child will have their behavior changed overnight.

Working with dedicated professionals

Because establishing reinforcement contingencies can be a long and sometimes difficult process, many parents decide to work with ABA professionals. They will utilize their expertise to create a strategy that will help your child reach their goals. They will also give you tips and guidance that will augment your own efforts.

At Lumiere Children’s Therapy, we take a collaborative approach to helping children, as we work with parents to create the best support system. Plus, we offer a nurturing, relaxed, and fun environment. To learn what we can off your and your child, please contact us.

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