National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders:

A "reinforcer" is anything that increases future behavior.

A preference does not equal a reinforcer.

There are two types of reinforcers:
  1. Following an appropriate behavior, something is "added" that the student enjoys/prefers, such as privileges or access to preferred items or activities.
  2. Following an appropriate behavior, something aversive is "removed" that the student dislikes, such as shortening a future assignment for compliance (work is removed for compliance, which will increase compliance in the future).

How to Reinforce Students:
1. Determine the behavior(s) you will reinforce
  • Appropriate behaviors (alternative behaviors)
  • The absence of inappropriate behaviors
2. Determine the behavior(s) you will not reinforce.
3. Select a reinforcement system
  • Student gets preferred items / activities
  • Student is given tokens that are exchanged for preferred items / activities.
  • How frequently will you reinforce appropriate behaviors? This should be based on how frequently the problem behavior occurs.
Frequency: After a certain number of responses (fixed/variable)
Duration: 1st response after a certain amount of time

Rules of Reinforcement:
  • Reinforcement should be connected to the behavior(s) you want to see increase. Avoid "freebies"
  • Use items/activities that are actually reinforcers
  • A variety of reinforcers should be used, both items and activities.
  • Always pair verbal praise with any tangible given (items/activities)
  • At first, reinforcement should occur quickly after the student exhibits the behavior so the two will be connected.
  • Likewise, reinforcement should be faded over time once the student's behavior has improved (more required to receive a reinforcer; more time in-between reinforcers)
  • Follow a consistent schedule of reinforcement. If one staff member reinforces for every worksheet, while the other reinforces at the end of each class period, behavior change may occur more slowly or not at all.
  • Avoid making reinforcement periods last too long. It is better to have shorter work periods followed by short reinforcement periods, instead of longer work periods and longer reinforcement. Example: instead of 30 minutes of math followed by a 15-minute break, provide a 5-minute break after 15 minutes of math.
  • Avoid allowing free access to reinforcers at other times of the day. The more exposure the student has to a reinforcer, the less valuable it becomes.

Reinforcement menu: Develop a list of potential reinforcers that are available to the student at any given time. Utilize menus that can be modified easily, such as dry-erase boards or laminated folders with pictures/icons displayed (use velcro). Include as many options and as much variety as possible. Make the images removable, giving staff control over which items/activities are available at that time.

Examples of positive consequences for acceptable behavior:
  • Teacher praise and demonstrations of teacher approval. Make praise specific to the student's behavior
  • Points/tokens earned by individual students, groups of students, or the whole class for certain rewards or privileges
  • Use of privileges, such as extended breaks or being the line leader or principal's helper
  • Mystery rewards: Bring a small amount of uncertainty into the reinforcement system, such as:
    • how many points will be earned: roll dice, draw numbers out of a hat, spin a wheel with numbers on it
    • hide reinforcers in a "mystery treasure chest," and have the student draw from it
    • Lottery: give out coupons to students, which are put in a container. The teacher draws names to receive reinforcement. Students become motivated to earn as many coupons as possible, because it increases their chance of being selected.

When should reinforcers be selected by or for the student?
  1. Selecting reinforcer before beginning activity: Can be helpful because student is aware of what will be provided once the task(s) are completed. However, some students may be distracted by this and become more focused on the reinforcer than the activities.
  2. Selecting reinforcer following activities: Can be helpful because you are providing the item/activity that is most desired by the student at that time, and it prevents the student becoming too focused on the reinforcer before it's available. However, motivation may be decreased when the student is unaware of what he/she will be provided with once the task(s) are completed.

For social reinforcers or activities that include other people, use photographs of the student engaging in those activities (e.g., going for a walk with staff; playing board game)

AT Tools and Strategies for Reinforcing Student Behaviors

Use visual representations of reinforcers: Pictures or icons representing the items/activities available to the student. These can be offered individually, but a "menu" is preferable. Choice increases the likelihood that the student will select something that is truly wanted, and appropriate behaviors have a better chance of happening as a result.

Token Systems: Tokens represent actual reinforcers that are available at a later time. These "backup" reinforcers become available either:
a) When enough tokens are earned
b) After a certain amount of time. The number of tokens a student has received during that time results in particular reinforcers \
  • more tokens = better quality reinforcer
  • reinforcer given if enough were earned during that time
  • tokens equal a certain amount of free time each that the student has access to reinforcers

Token System Formats:
  • Checks/marks on paper or dry-erase board
  • Coins (pennies are preferred) adhered to something with velcro or put in a container
  • Stamps
  • Stickers
  • Tickets

Tools to "randomize" reinforcement:
  • spinners
  • lottery drawings
  • mystery box