A Reinforcing Life



Clearly, when I think of "reinforcing" I think of doughnuts. :-)

Positive reinforcement has lots of precise definitions, but a very simple way of understanding it is: why you do it again.

After buying your wife roses once, why do it again?
After visiting an exclusive spa, why do it again?
After having 1 bite of delicious ice cream, why do it again?

We do something again, because of reinforcement. Something reinforced, or strengthened, our behavior to drive us to repeat the behavior seeking to contact that same reinforcement.

Whether you came to this blog as a parent or professional, we all should a common goal of seeking to build upon or expand reinforcers.


Reinforcement is the reason why my clients learn what words like "Come here", "Give me the ____", or "Stop" mean. It's why they choose to use language rather than hit me when I upset them. It's also why you got up and went to work today, and why you answer a ringing telephone.

For most of the kids I work with, when I first meet them they have minimal reinforcers. They often spend their time wandering around the home, making noises or sounds, engaging in repetitive or challenging behaviors, and being heavily dependent upon other people to make fun things happen. By the way, this is also why many early ABA programs use edible reinforcement. I see that critiqued quite often, but it is very common that pre-intervention young children do not have a massive list of reinforcers to choose from. For this reason, edibles must be used initially with the goal being to move to tangible and social reinforcement as soon as possible.

Through intervention combined with valuable systems of reinforcement, individual clients learn to:

- request desired items or activities, instead of angrily crying until someone figures out what they want
-replace harmful or disruptive behaviors with hobbies, skills, or leisure activities
-let someone know when an activity is boring, or when they just don't want to do it anymore
-get another person to engage with them, play with them, or talk to them


It's very easy to focus solely on teaching skills or reducing problem behaviors. These things are important. Highly important. But a life is not built upon performing skills, or keeping a calm body.

If someone went to your home and removed every activity or object you find reinforcing (cell phone, coffee, laptop, a good book, etc.), you probably would not want to live in that home anymore. It might start to feel more like a prison or jail, than a home. Okay....so think about how a child with special needs may feel when they have so few reinforcers that they are allowed to contact, or know how to request. Sounds like a pretty dull life, doesn't it?

Intervention should be about more than just fixating on deficits, it should also look to improve overall life functioning. I know for my life, my reinforcers are pretty darn important to my overall satisfaction, mood, and temperament. I'm guessing it's the same for your life.

Building a history of reinforcement, builds an enriched life. As you are working on teaching your child, student, or client to tie their shoes, say "please", or complete math problems, I'd also suggest systematically working to increase their reinforcers, which improves quality of life.






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