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 MODULE: Reinforcement


Are There Any Assessments Necessary Prior to Using Reinforcement?


Before implementing a reinforcement program using positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or token economy programs, team members should conduct a reinforcer sampling to identify objects, items, or activities that are reinforcing or have been reinforcing in the past for individual learners with ASD. A reinforcement program will not be successful unless the learner with ASD is highly motivated by the reinforcers. This process will vary according to the reinforcement procedure being used (see Step-by-Step Instructions for positive and negative reinforcement). Reinforcers can be identified by:

    Conducting reinforcer assessments;
  • Creating preference lists (e.g., reinforcer checklists, reinforcer menus);
    Interviewing the learner;
    Interviewing family members; or
  • Interviewing other team members.

Through this process, team members identify a variety of reinforcers that can be used to motivate learners with ASD to increase their use of target skills. Reinforcers are generally categorized as either primary or secondary. Primary reinforcers satisfy a physical need by making the individual feel good (e.g., food, liquids, sleep). Secondary reinforcers are objects or activities that individuals have grown to like, but that do not meet basic biological needs. Potential reinforcers include the following:

  • Social reinforcers are found in virtually any setting. Social reinforcers often must be taught to learners with ASD because they may not be inherently reinforcing.
    • EXAMPLES: facial expressions (e.g., smiles), proximity (e.g., sitting next to teacher or mom), words and phrases (e.g., “Good job!” “Way to go!”), and seating arrangements (e.g., sitting alone, sitting next to favorite peer)
  • Material/activity reinforcers can be motivating to learners with ASD; however, team members should vary these kinds of reinforcers with others so that learners do not grow tired of them.
EXAMPLES: play activities, access to computer games, stickers, “cool” school supplies (e.g., Spiderman erasers), bubbles
  • Tangible/edible reinforcers include objects that a learner with ASD can acquire.
EXAMPLES: toys, magazines, pencils, candy, popcorn
  • Sensory reinforcers are often motivating to learners with ASD. However, these types of reinforcers should be used only when (a) the teacher can control access to them, (b) the reinforcer is deemed acceptable and appropriate for the setting, and (3) no other reinforcer is as motivating to the learner with ASD.
    • EXAMPLES: looking at a kaleidoscope, blowing bubbles, playing with a squishy ball, sitting in a rocking chair, rubbing hand lotion, getting tickles
  • Natural reinforcers are ordinary results of a behavior and occur naturally in the environment.
    • EXAMPLES: receiving a good grade after studying, getting milk after asking for it, and having more friends as a result of good social skills

When selecting reinforcers, team members should focus on selecting reinforcers that are inexpensive, do not take a lot of staff time to use, and, whenever possible, are natural (Alberto & Troutman, 2008; Henry & Myles, 2007; Reichle & Johnson, 2007).

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