How To Identify Reinforcers

Which of the items pictured above would be reinforcing to you?
It would probably depend on what I asked you to do, the time of day, if you were hungry, sleepy, tired, sad, etc. You probably wouldn’t wash my car if I offered to give you $1. But you might wash my car if I offered to give you $100 (…or maybe not, if you really hate washing cars).

ABA therapists use reinforcers to get the learner to comply, to sit, to attend, to transition, and many more various behaviors. It took me a while to learn that just because child A will work for something that doesn’t mean child B will. It seems like such an obvious thing to know, but as therapists we do tend to make sweeping generalizations about the kiddos we work with. Such as:
"All kids will work for candy… All kids will work to avoid a reprimand.....All kids like attention… All kids know who Dora or Spongebob is... All kids like tickles" 
Every one of those statements is wrong, because they assume all kids are the same.

Choosing, selecting, and testing reinforcers takes skill and patience but the payoff is huge. Instead of being in a session with a child who is bored or defiant,  you now are approaching the child with the knowledge of what they like and what they will work for…..because there is a difference.

 I really like chocolate cupcakes, but I will not paint your house to get paid in chocolate cupcakes. There is a difference between your client liking something, and your client working for something. If you have been working with a client on a skill or set of skills for a long time without seeing progress, try changing your reinforcement. The child may have gotten bored with the reinforcement. Or maybe they like the item but not enough to do a difficult skill for it. They could have become satiated on the reinforcement (this happens very often with edible reinforcers).

A big issue I see happen frequently is someone else in the child’s life is giving them a similar reinforcer and the therapist doesn’t know. For example, the teacher at school keeps a candy dish full of Skittles in the room that the children have free access to. Its highly unlikely that you will be able to get your client to do challenging tasks to earn a Skittle, if they spent all day freely munching on Skittles. In behavior analytic terms this is called Bootleg Reinforcement. This can happen pretty often, so its important to make sure the reinforcement you are using is unique and the child doesn't have free access to it.
 If you had just finished a big seafood platter and I offered you a hamburger, the hamburger probably wouldn’t seem too appetizing. Even if you love hamburgers I have to offer it to you at the right moment. To understand effective reinforcement, you have to understand how to manipulate M.O. (Motivating Operations). Once you can do that you are on your way to being an awesome therapist!

Here are a few procedures to select powerful, effective reinforcers:

  • Start by observing the child in a variety of settings- When I say “observe the child”, most therapists think I mean follow the child around the house. Observation is much bigger than that. Observe the child at the park, the grocery store, grandma’s house, in the classroom, at a birthday party, etc. Notice what the child gravitates to, what they touch, what they stare at, what they smile at, and what objects they pick up. Over time you will likely start to see patterns emerge that tell you what that child likes. A favorite observation tool of mine is to take a client to a toy store like Toys R Us. I just let them wander freely and I pay attention to what they look at, touch, or engage with. That gives me a great source of ideas as to what kind of items/toys that child likes.
  • Talk to caregivers and others- Talk to the child’s parents, teachers, other therapists, siblings, etc. Ask questions about what kind of toys/items your client likes. Try to use open ended questions, such as “What kind of movies does Tanisha like” versus a closed ended question like “Does Tanisha like movies”. Make sure you ask sensory related questions so you can learn what the child likes to see/hear/smell/touch. If appropriate, you can also just interview the child.
  • Test your ideas- Once you have an idea of what the child likes gather a few reinforcers together. Present the reinforcers to the child and pay attention to what they engage with longest. I am basically describing a Preference Assessment.
  • The only constant is change- This is probably the most important thing to remember: Your client’s interests and likes will change over time. Don't your interests change with time?? With some of my clients I change the toys in my goodie bag every few days because I know those children get bored quickly. On the other hand, I have one client I have been seeing over 2 years on a consultative basis. Every time I visit, she immediately requests that I play Hide & Seek with her which is a game she finds highly reinforcing. She never gets tired of it. Let the child indicate to you when its time to change your reinforcers. If they want to work for the trampoline every day, that’s great. However if one day they don’t want the trampoline you need to be ready to use another reinforcer. Keep a supply of reinforcing items with you that are interesting and vary in size, texture, color, etc. Don’t just show up to a session and grab what is in the home, and try and use that as a reinforcer. The items in the home are things that child sees everyday. You may be able to get the child to do easy tasks for the teddy bear you grab off their bed. But once you move to more difficult tasks, or once that child has a bad day, that teddy bear just isn’t going to cut it.
  • Have a stash of 24 Karat Gold reinforcers- That is just my own nickname for my super powerful reinforcers. I call them my “24 Karats”. As you spend time with your clients you get to know their personalities, and what they like. You learn what items they go insane over. Instead of mixing those items in with your other reinforcers, put them aside. Save them for really difficult sessions, like if the child is getting over a cold, didn’t get enough sleep, or you are teaching a very hard skill. Bring these items out sparingly. You want to keep the interest in these items high so when you bring them out the child is really excited. How do you know if a reinforcer is a “24 Karat”? Here are a few signs to look for:
    1. You bring the item out of your goodie bag or your car, and the child immediately makes a beeline over to you and tries to take the item.
    2. The child mands for the item when it is out of sight.
    3. Watch facial expression: the child smiles, their eyes widen, or they give intense eye contact to the item. Here is a very simple trick: Place the reinforcer/random goodie on your palm so the child can see, and then close your palm tightly. If the child comes over to you and tries prying your hand open you are holding a 24 Karat!
    4. When its time to put the reinforcer away the child resists giving the item up, cries, tantrums, or may even become aggressive. Therapists, be happy when you see this reaction because it tells you that the child really wants that item.
    5. The child will drop an item they really like, in order to approach you when you are holding the 24 Karat.


  1. The term "24 Karat gold" reinforcers is priceless. My son won't do diddly squat for food/candy/etc (doesn't even like sweets) but will turn himself inside out for these tiny (1.5" long) Thomas & Friends trains I found in KinderSurprise eggs. After reading your post I'm definitely going to take them out of rotation for a bit & save them for potty training. Loving your blog!

  2. Isnt it funny how some kids could just care less about candy? :-)
    Thank you, Im glad you're enjoying the blog!


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