Reinforcement in the Classroom
Kelsey Larriba-Quest, M.Ed., Graduate Assistant
One of teachers most valued behavior management tools is reinforcement. Reinforcement can be used to teach new skills, teach a replacement behavior for an interfering behavior, increase appropriate behaviors, or increase on-task behavior (AFIRM Team, 2015). Reinforcement may seem like a simple strategy that all teachers use, but it is often not used as effectively as it could be. The goal of this article is to describe how reinforcement can be used more systematically in the classroom.
Before we describe when and how reinforcement should be used, it is important to describe the difference between two types of reinforcement, positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is the delivery of a reinforcer to increase appropriate behaviors whereas negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive event or condition, which also increases appropriate behavior (AFIRM Team, 2015). An example of positive reinforcement is providing a sticker to a student once they’ve completed an assignment. An example of negative reinforcement is allowing the student to leave circle time for a five-minute break after they use a break card. As you can see, the goal of both positive and negative reinforcement is to increase desired behaviors.
Reinforcement is only truly being used if following an appropriate behavior, a consequence (a reinforcer or removal of an aversive event) is provided and it increases the likelihood of the student using the behavior in the future (AFIRM Team, 2015). Reinforcement often fails to increase the desired behavior in the future when the reinforcer is not actually motivating to the student. We can prevent this by including the student in the process of identifying reinforcers through reinforcer surveys or reinforcement sampling. A reinforcer survey asks the student to answer questions and checklists to identify their reinforcers. One example of a reinforcer survey can be found here: https://goo.gl/K8DX7A. Reinforcer surveys can be individualized to include the student’s interests and classroom limitations. For students who have limited communication skills, reinforcement sampling may be a more appropriate strategy to identify their likes and dislikes (Berg, Wacker, & Steege, 1995). A teacher will first observe the student, and then talk to the student’s parents, and other staff who work with the student to gather possible reinforcers. There are two types of reinforcers to choose from (Alberto & Troutman, 2009). Primary reinforcers are those that are innately reinforcing, such as edibles (small pieces of food or drink) or sensory experiences (light up toys, fans, massagers). Secondary reinforcers include tangible items, activities, special privileges, social praise, and attention. Once these items are gathered, the teacher will then present the reinforcers in pairs to the student and see which one they choose. The teacher should continue to present sets of two reinforcer choices until all choices have been paired with one another. The reinforcer with the highest percentage of being chosen (# of times chosen/ # of times presented) can be considered a true reinforcer. Intervention Central provides further instructions on how to conduct a reinforcement sampling and also provides a data sheet to record the student’s choices (https://goo.gl/28wnuH).
Once the teacher has identified reinforcers and data has been collected on the frequency or duration of the target behavior, delivery of the reinforcement can commence. In the beginning, the teacher or other staff member will want to provide the reinforcement every single time the student uses the target skill or behavior. The goal of continuous reinforcement is to teach students that when they use appropriate behavior, they get rewarded. In order to make this strong connection, reinforcers need to be provided immediately following the target skill. The longer the time is between the behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer, the weaker the association will be. It is also important to pair the reinforcer with behavior specific praise (“Great job writing your name” or “Super work sitting in your seat”). Behavior specific praise does two things: (1) it tells the student exactly what they are being reinforced for and (2) it helps students become more motivated by social reinforcers through the pairing of the desired item or activity with the praise and teacher attention (AFIRM Team, 2015).
Sometimes a teacher may begin using reinforcement, but over time they find it becoming less effective. In these cases, we need to think of depravation and satiation (AFIRM Team, 2015). Depravation is keeping the reinforcer away from the student until they have exhibited the desired behavior. If the reinforcer is play dough, we make sure that the play dough is taken away from the free time area and the student isn’t given play dough at home. This ensures that when they receive the play dough contingent on their appropriate behavior, it will be highly reinforcing. Satiation occurs when the reinforcer has been overused and is no longer motivating. To avoid satiation, a variety of reinforcers should be used and new ones should be introduced. We may also want to teach the skill in several short periods. For example, a teacher who wants to teach the student how to follow a one-step direction may provide three opportunities to access the reinforcer and then wait an hour to do it again. Although edibles can be very rewarding, they should be avoided as it is easy for a student to satiate on food and are not always the most age-appropriate reinforcer. In cases where no other reinforcers could be identified for the student, the edible should be broken up into small bites.
Some teachers may worry about using reinforcement due to the possibility of the student depending on the reinforcer to engage in the appropriate behavior or the need to provide high rates of reinforcement. This is a legitimate concern, but can be avoided by having a plan for how the reinforcement will be thinned. Reinforcement thinning is decreasing the overall rate or density of reinforcement provided to the individual when they emit the target behavior (Hagopian, Boelter, & Jarmolowicz, 2011). Three different ways to systematically decrease reinforcement are delay schedules, chained schedules, and multiple schedules. Delay schedules involve increasing the wait time between when the student produces the appropriate behavior and when they receive their reinforcer. A teacher may provide a verbal response “wait” or provide a picture card that indicates wait after they emit the behavior. Chained schedules are usually used for behaviors that are maintained by escape. In these cases, the teacher will progressively increase the number of steps, amount of time, or the number of demands before the student can access the escape or reinforcement. Prior to the demands, the teacher should tell the student about the set criterion or provide a visual of the number of steps. The last type of thinning is multiple schedules. With multiple schedules, the reinforcement component is decreased while the extinction component (time where no reinforcement is provided) is increased. This can be done by providing cue cards. For individuals who can read, they may be presented with cards that say “Reinforcement Available” or “Reinforcement Not Available” while others may be shown red or white cards. When shown the “Reinforcement Available” or white card, the student will receive reinforcement each time they produce the appropriate behavior and during the “Not Available” or red card, they do not receive reinforcement. The goal is to progressively increase the use of the red card while still maintaining appropriate behavior.
Once a system of reinforcement has been individualized for a student, everyone who interacts with the student should be aware of the system. Individuals who work with the student should be aware of the possible reinforcers and how to avoid satiation of those reinforcers. By having a variety of school personnel, and in different settings across the school day using the reinforcement system, the student will be more likely to generalize their appropriate behavior to other areas.
AFIRM Team. (2015). Reinforcement. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina. Retrieved from http://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/Reinforcement.
Alberto, P. E., & Troutman, A. C. (2009). Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers (8th ed.). Upper Saddles River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Berg, W.K., Wacker, D.P., & Steege, M.W. (1995). Best practices in assessment with persons who have severe or profound handicaps. In A. Thomas & J.Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology-III (3rd ed., pp.805-816). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.
Hagopian, L. P., Boelter, E. W., & Jarmolowicz, D. P. (2011). Reinforcement schedule thinning following functional communication training: Review and recommendations. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 4(1), 4-16
Larriba-Quest, K. (2017). Reinforcement in the classroom. The Reporter, 21(18). Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/reinforcement-in-the-classroom.