ABA 101: A Simple Guide to Reinforcement

The word “reinforcement” has become part of our cultural vocabulary.  

So, why is reinforcement such a confusing and frustrating topic for many teachers???

Taking a step back to make sure we have a shared understanding of  “reinforcement” can help get everyone on the same page.

A reward is not the same thing as a reinforcer.  

Let’s get into the weeds a little bit and get on the same page here.  

From a BCBA’s (behavior analysts) perspective here’s the difference between a reward and a reinforcer...

Reward: a prize or privilege that happens for a job well done

Reinforcer: a stimulus that occurs following the display of behavior- that leads to that behavior happening MORE often, under similar circumstances

It’s ONLY a reinforcer if it connects to a change in behavior.  Otherwise, it’s a stimulus.  

It’s the change in behavior that MAKES something a reinforcer.  

If we can agree on this point, it can make designing and implementing systems much easier!!

Because by definition, reinforcement is effective...

When the "reward" doesn’t connect with the desired change in behavior, we tend to assume that it’s the idea of reinforcement that is ineffective... 

We may say, “See.. reinforcement doesn’t work for her.”  

But, that’s not the case.  

If it doesn’t change behavior, it’s not a reinforcer...

What is a reinforcer then???

We tend to think about reinforcers as being interchangeable with things we like.  

If we like something, it’s a reinforcer, right?  


For example, I like cheese.  

Like I really really like cheese.  Like if there was a group called “Cheesy Anonymous” I’d be in the front row saying, 

“Hello.  My name is Shauna.  I am a cheesaholic.”  

Yet, cheese isn’t going to “cut it” if my boss decides to pay me in cheddar... (not the metaphoric kind but the Vermont Sharp kind) instead of money.  

Cheese isn’t going to work as a reinforcer for waking up early to go to a yoga class. 

 Unless by “work” you mean allow me to spend the next 75 minutes in fear of inversions or twists of any kind.  

It only be a reinforcer if it connects to an increase in future behavior.

Reinforcement is context-specific.  

That means different situations call for different reinforcers.  

Your student might need different reinforcers for different tasks.

Most teachers are familiar with the classic reinforcers such as: a token system with an ipad chaser.  

Earn your tokens-get a prize. 

We can start to sound like carnival barkers luring passersby to try their hand at tossing a ball in a bucket or, better yet, like Oprah.  

“You get ipad time!  You get ipad time!”  

As teachers, we often incorporate the following system when it comes to reinforcers 

  • always include a token board
  • are usually backed up with access to an ipad or technology
  • generally involve the student becoming isolated in some kind of activity
  • Reinforcer systems are based on... “If you do X you can get Y.”

I challenge you to think differently... here are 3 ideas to get you started! 

1. Non-contingent reinforcement can be as effective as contingent reinforcement.

As teachers, we can sometimes be sticklers when it comes to reinforcement systems. 

The child needs to do “If you do X you can get Y.”

Depending on the situation, the child may or may not earn it.  They might not get any reinforcement for extended periods of time which can lead to the display of some tricky behaviors... 

Non-contingent, or “free” reinforcers happen as part of our everyday lives.

They serve as a kind of a clean slate for everyone involved. 

Knowing that reinforcement is going to happen can “release the pressure.” As adults, we get to experience non-contingent reinforcement ourselves in our daily lives…

  • That daily or weekly call with your bestie.  You haven’t earned that call, per se. Your friend doesn’t have you to, say, post 3 complimentary facebook posts before she calls you.  (Or does she???? Hmmm)
  • Do you like your lunch period?  How about your planning period? Do you need to grade x number of papers before you get to have a planning period? 

Things like lunch and gym and art and recess can serve as non-contingent reinforcers for our kiddos... Or yoga or free time or doing special jobs. 

One of my students last year is nicknamed my “PIF” or “Partner In Fun.”  

He walked with me to the school cafeteria and carried my salad back to class for me every day.  

This happened regardless of how his day was going and this special time gave me a daily chance to connect with him.  And he returned to class full of pride at being my special helper and he got a fresh start for the second half of the day.  

We all know teachers who are expert in delivering social non-contingent reinforcement, right? 

Teachers who smile and chat with kids... and get to know them as unique humans. 

These teachers are often the ones our children choose to “earn” when it comes to reward time.  

So…. consider your tricky customers.  Start delivering a couple of doses of non-contingent reinforcement... at strategic times... during the day. Then measure this by tracking any positive changes in behavior. 

2. Reframe “If….then” to “When….then.”

With the “if...then” framework, we may be setting the bar too low for our students.

We're sending the message that we as teachers aren’t confident they are going to be successful.  

This little word “if” can start to seep into the esteem of our more vulnerable learners. 

“When...then” sets the bar higher, and assumes that Of course you can do it! It might take 4 minutes of 40 but I know you’re going to be successful with this. 

The word “when” empowers both the teacher and the child.  

3. It’s not always prizes that are the best reinforcers.

We tend to think about reinforcement as a kind of treat.  

For many of our students, privilege and responsibility make awesome reinforcers.  

Some successful reinforcers I find myself turning to again and again are...

  • making deliveries
  • helping with pets
  • stacking chairs
  • organizing classroom materials
  • erasing the board
  • etc. 

Many of our children respond very well to this kind of system.  

Remember though, a reinforcer is defined by its effect on future behavior... You know it's working if you see positive behavior under future similar circumstances…

Otherwise, you may be dabbling in the “forced child labor” market and that’s something I can’t help you with ;)

I hope these tips have opened your mind to new ideas on reinforcement. I’d love to hear how you are using reinforcement systems in your classroom! 



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