Understanding M.O.: Motivating Operations

Motivating Operations (M.O.) is an important ABA concept that refers to the internal processes or desires of an individual that change or improve the value of a certain stimulus.  This change can improve the effectiveness or value of a certain reinforcer (E.O., or Establishing Operations), or it can reduce or lower the value of a certain reinforcer (A.O., or Abolishing Operations).

Basically when someone refers to M.O., they are describing Motivation.

So why is this an important concept for anyone who works with children with Autism to know? 

Well, one way that children with Autism may differ from NT children is a lack of motivation. It is that lack of motivation, or atypical motivations, that can cause a child with Autism not to exhibit behaviors many typical children exhibit: point to objects excitedly (joint attention), make eye contact and smile, use communication effectively, display socially appropriate behaviors, etc. Children with Autism often additional extra motivation to perform tasks or activities that other children enjoy.

For example, birthday parties are considered fun and exciting and typically, children  do not need extra motivation to attend one. But for a child with Autism birthday parties might be stressful, loud, chaotic, and overstimulating. So in order to successfully take a child with Autism to a birthday party it may be necessary to provide additional motivation. If you have a good understanding of M.O., it can be a powerful tool to make any stimulus  more motivating to your child or client.

Motivation is key within all aspects of life. Teachers often create highly motivating environments for their students using visuals supports within their classrooms, presentation of exciting curriculum units, and presentation of material using multimedia, such as showing a movie. Some students are intrinsically motivated to learn, and some are not. When you understand M.O. then you know how to take a non preferred item or activity, and make it preferred....even if only temporarily. Please see the example below:

You are trying to teach a 4 year old child non-verbal child to request juice. So far you haven't had much success. You are aware that language training needs to take place all throughout the day, so you offer juice to the child in the morning, afternoon, and evening, and you even vary the type of juice to see if that grabs the child's interest. Unfortunately none of these strategies seem to be working.

Besides being an empirically supported behavioral tool, using M.O. correctly can save time and money. Instead of increasing time output by offering the child MORE juice, hoping that will get MORE language, or increasing money output by buying apple juice, orange juice, and pineapple juice, try manipulating the M.O. 

Firstly, stop offering the child juice for a few days. Only allow them to drink water, milk, etc. This will make the juice more powerful when you bring it back because the child hasn't had it in a while. After a few days have passed wait until the child has an increased desire for juice. This could be after the child has been outside playing in the sun or after the child has eaten pretzels or salty snacks. Then offer juice to the child and try to get a mand. That is how you successfully use M.O. to manipulate the power, or desirability of a stimulus. ABA at its core is about manipulating the environment to bring about desired changes in behavior, and M.O. is an excellent tool to have in your arsenal.

Here are a few more examples of M.O.-

  1. "Fluid Loading" (providing free, unlimited, highly preferred fluids to drink) a child during potty training, to increase the likelihood they will have to urinate.
  2. Removing Skittles as a reinforcer because you notice the child just plays with the candy and doesn't eat it. Then bringing the Skittles back the next month, to increase the likelihood the child will want the candy.
  3. If you are trying to teach a child about automobiles, wait until they are playing with their Thomas the Tank Engine toy to have them learn the label "train".
  4. If you are working during a session with a child who is refusing to sit down, go outside and have them jump, swing, run, hop, etc, and exert physical energy. Then take them back inside, to increase the likelihood that they will want to sit down.
  5. Don't work on self help skills such as proper fork grip, and drinking from an open mouthed cup, at arbitrary times of the day. Work on these skills during mealtimes, so the child is more likely to want to want to use the skill so they can receive the reward (food).


  1. Thank you so much. It helps me to understand M.O. :)

  2. Tameika, the information is helpful even though I am struggling with M.O.'s. I am currently a student and I have not had that "aha" moment with M.O.'s.

    1. M.O.'s can sometimes be more relevant the more you know the client. I know for particular clients (who I have a great relationship with) when they are most and least able to focus or attend, based on their mood, did they sleep the night before, did they eat lunch at school, etc.
      Understanding and being aware of the power of M.O. will help you greatly when working with clients, so hang in there!


Copyright T. Meadows 2011. All original content on this blog is protected by copyright. Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top