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 MODULE: Reinforcement

Overview of Reinforcement

Reinforcement describes a relationship between learner behavior and a consequence that follows the behavior. This relationship is only considered reinforcement if the consequence increases the probability that a given behavior will occur in the future, or at least be maintained. For example, a learner may be having difficulty completing independent work in math class. However, when the teacher offers fun activities to students who have completed their work, the student is much more likely to finish his work independently. In this example, the teacher has increased the likelihood that the learner with ASD will complete his independent work activities by offering reinforcing activities after he is finished with them. Another example is the parent that gives her toddler the treasured toy that he asks for using gestures. She is positively reinforcing his request naturally.

The ultimate goal of reinforcement is to help learners with ASD learn new skills and maintain their use over time in a variety of settings with many different individuals. As such, team members must identify the appropriate reinforcers that motivate individual learners with ASD. In this module, three reinforcement procedures will be discussed: (a) positive reinforcement, (b) negative reinforcement, and (c) token economy programs. Steps for implementing each of these procedures is provided as well as information on how reinforcement can be used across the age range from preschool through adolescence.

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is based upon the principles of applied behavior analysis, particularly the work of B.F. Skinner. Through his work, Skinner (1956) outlined the major theoretical constructs of reinforcement and argued that reinforcement should be individualized based upon learner preference. The main reason is that what is reinforcing to one person may not be reinforcing to another. Therefore, reinforcement is most effective when it is individualized for a particular learner and when it is immediately presented in response to a learner’s use of a target behavior.

When using reinforcement, it is essential that learners with ASD understand what behavior is required to earn the reinforcer. Research on reinforcement has shown that it is a highly effective practice that can be used to increase and strengthen a variety of behaviors and skills (cf., Cicero & Pfadt, 2002; Grindle & Remington, 2005; Higbee, Carr, & Patel, 2002; Kay, Harchik, & Luiselli, 2006; Kern, Carberry, & Haidara, 1997; Koegel, O’Dell, & Dunlap, 1988; Lee & Sturmey, 2006; Pelios, MacDuff, & Axelrod, 2003; Sidener, Shabani, Carr, & Roland, 2006; Todd & Reid, 2006).

When implementing reinforcement, the following three basic principles should be followed:

  • Reinforcement immediately follows the target behavior.
  • Reinforcement fits the target behavior and is meaningful to the learner with ASD.
  • Multiple reinforcers are more effective than a single reinforcer (Alberto & Troutman, 2008).

Three reinforcement procedures can be used to help learners with ASD acquire and maintain target skills: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and token economy programs. A description of each of these procedures is included in the following section.

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