The Greatest American Hero: Reinforcement

I intended for my post on Punishment ( The Good, The Bad,& The Ugly) to stand alone, but it continues to be a highly popular post. So of course, I can’t leave you with ½ of the whole picture.

 If punishment is the bad guy of ABA, who is often misunderstood ...

 Then reinforcement is the hero of ABA, who is loved by all.

In order to fully understand punishment, it’s important to understand reinforcement. When it comes to ABA, if you know how to apply punishment and reinforcement then you can manage an infinite number of behaviors.
So first, a definition:

Reinforcement occurs when a stimulus change immediately follows a response and increases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions (Cooper & Heron, 2007, Applied Behavior Analysis).

What that basically means is that reinforcement is something that occurs after a behavior that increases the future likelihood that the behavior will happen again. Just like with punishment, reinforcement can be positive or negative:

Positive Reinforcement-
Add something to increase a behavior
Negative Reinforcement-
Take away something to increase a behavior
Positive Punishment-
Add something to decrease a behavior
Negative Punishment-
Take away something to decrease a behavior

Reinforcement is the bread & butter of ABA programs. Behavior analysts and practitioners strive to use behavior management techniques founded in reinforcement. When it comes to behavior, positive and negative do not mean good and bad. Think of math terms, where positive means to add and negative means to take away. Here are some real life examples:

  • You are walking to work when you are caught in a sudden rainfall, and your clothes and skin get drenched. You go into a nearby store and buy an umbrella. In the future, you start carrying an umbrella with you to work everyday. In this example the rain falling on your skin and clothing was removed (negative), which increased the behavior of carrying an umbrella (reinforcement).

  • Your 3rd grader hates doing her spelling homework and everyday it is a struggle to get her to complete her homework, and sometimes she doesn’t finish it at all. You come up with a strategy where for every 3 spelling problems that your daughter completes she gets to stay up past her bedtime an extra 10 minutes. In the future, your daughter begins doing her spelling homework to completion. In this example, you added the incentive of staying up past bedtime (positive), which increased the behavior of your daughter finishing her homework (reinforcement).

When it comes to reinforcement, understand that it always affects future behavior. For this reason, if you added or removed something and the behavior did not increase over time, then you are not using reinforcement. This is an error many teachers, therapists, and parents make. They say to me, “I have been giving this child X reinforcer for a month now, and the behavior still hasn’t been strengthened. What’s going on?” By definition, if the behavior does not go up then reinforcement is not happening. Once you understand this, it will make it so much easier for you to know when to change or modify a behavior plan.  Take a good look at your “reinforcers” and make sure they are actually effective. Effective reinforcement leads to effective change in behavior.  Want to see just how effective and enduring reinforcement can be on behavior? Take a look at the following list:

Why do you put a coat on when its cold outside?
Why do you answer your phone when it rings?
Why do you tell your wife “I love you”?
Why do you come inside to get out of the rain?
Why do you work to get good grades in school?

The answer to all of these questions is: Reinforcement.  Through a combination of learning and contact with reinforcement you learned to do things to contact things you like, and to not do things to avoid things you don’t like.

There are some ways to make reinforcement more effective and to shorten the learning curve. If you follow these tips, you can be sure to successfully strengthen desired behaviors in your child/client in a reasonably short amount of time.

  1. Let the child determine what reinforcers you use: Not all children will work for candy, or praise, or to watch a DVD, or for hugs, etc. Don’t use a standard group of reinforcers assuming that “all children” like those things. Let the child’s interests and motivations determine what reinforcers you use.
  2. Reinforcement needs to be delivered immediately after the behavior: It is not as effective to give your son a sticker before bedtime because he ate all of his cereal at breakfast. The more you are able to deliver quick and immediate reinforcement, the sooner you will see the desired behavior increase.
  3. The magnitude (size) of the reinforcer needs to fit the behavior: If one of my clients waves to me after I prompt them to wave, I am going to deliver praise. However if they spontaneously wave at me, Im going to deliver praise, a tickle, and some type of tangible reinforcer (e.g. jump on trampoline).
  4. Reinforce the behavior, not the child: I dont reinforce Tommy when I give him a high -five. I am reinforcing his eye contact, or his quiet mouth, or his motor imitation skills. I am reinforcing behaviors I want to see increase. Make sense?
  5. Gradually fade out your reinforcement from steady to intermittent: Over time, you want to slowly decrease the amount of reinforcers you are giving. When you are toilet training a 3 year old, of course you want to deliver huge praise and reinforcement. Once that child is a 5 year old who is fully toilet trained, you don’t want to have to applaud and give a cookie everytime he goes to the bathroom.
  6. Always pair tangible reinforcers with praise: For many children with Autism, praise alone is not reinforcing. Especially if the child is new to ABA, you are going to want to start with tangible reinforcers (usually edibles). Don’t just silently deliver a reinforcer. Pair praise with tangible items so that over time you can fade out the items and the child is just working for praise.
  7. Last but not least, is the most important reinforcement tip: Only reinforce what you want to see increase. This might sound obvious, but it’s a very common mistake. Here is a common example:

Child and parent are in a store. Child begins to cry/tantrum because they want to leave. Parent gets embarrassed/panics. Child and parent leave store

That child has just been reinforced for their behavior, and she has learned that the way to get out of an unwanted setting is to tantrum. This is the origin of many inappropriate behaviors....someone in that child’s life has reinforced the wrong behaviors. Be very careful with reinforcement because if you use it incorrectly, on the wrong behaviors, or at the wrong times, the behavior will still go up.


  1. Great read! I am a behavior specialist and trying to up my reinforcement to be bigger and better. Thanks!

  2. Great teaching!! I'm a register Behavior technician. Your wonderful article has encouraged and excited me to be great with my clients. Thanks


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