Reinforcement as a Positive Behavior Support Strategy

Recognizing students for following rules, directives, directions, participating, etc., is one of the most effective tools for managing, promoting, and correcting challenging behaviors. Students respond far much better typically to positive reinforcement then negative or punitive interactions.

Positive Behavior Support (PBS) strategies using differential reinforcement (DR) are effective only if the reinforcement procedures match the individual's unique characteristics and needs. Simply stated, the individual must find the reinforcer reinforcing. Errors in achieving this match frequently sabotage the success of otherwise well-designed intervention plans. The school staff will need to determine appropriate reinforcers for the student as well as the frequency and way they are given. The following material on reinforcement is offered in response to frequently encountered problems that often lead to intervention failures.

Reinforcer versus Reward

One of the most common errors when implementing reinforcement as a behavior intervention is the confusion between reward and reinforcement. Reinforcement occurs when a consequence to a behavior results in that behavior increasing or maintaining its frequency. Thus, the behavior is reinforced; it is made stronger and more resistant to elimination because the individual desires the reinforcer and associates the behavior with desirable outcomes.

A reward, on the other hand, is given by an observer to someone for having met some criterion established by the observer. Frequently, the giver assumes the recipient will like the outcome. The reward may actually be hated by the receiver (e.g., "You did that sheet of problems so beautifully that you get to do another one as a reward"). In other words, a reward is what you think will work, while a reinforcer is what is proven to work.

Resistance to Reinforcement

There are many different reinforcers available to maintain or increase behaviors. Frequently, individuals described as "resistant to reinforcement" are simply not responsive to the selected reinforcer. The selected reinforcer may not be provided with enough intensity to support change from the behavior of concern, which, of course, has its own reinforcer present. For example, a student may love stickers, especially stickers with unicorns, and express a desire to work to earn them; however, they may find the reinforcer for the challenging behavior, such as social attention or release of physical energy, even more enticing.

Therefore, the school staff needs to understand not only the student's likes and dislikes, but also the degrees of desirability and the purpose or function of the behavior for that individual. If an individual is noted in previous records to be "reinforcer resistant," a thorough examination of the reinforcers currently observable and potentially available across environments is recommended if direct treatment strategies are desired. Understanding the principles involved in reinforcer selection is as important as knowing what the individual finds reinforcing.

Closure as a Reinforcer

Closure here is defined as finishing the whole, completing a set, or arriving at the end. There can even be a somewhat obsessive quality to this closure, such as a person driven to check off every item on a “to do” list. If an individual has a limited number sense because of their developmental level, “When you have five stars you may stop” may not be clear, even if the student's rote counting is much higher. If that same individual has a sheet with five spaces per row, they can clearly see how many squares are left to fill, to “close up.”

Determining What is the Actual Reinforcer

It is important to determine which elements in each "reinforcement act" are found to be reinforcing. In general, activities and interests actively sought after by the individual are good areas for inquiry. Interviews with the individual and significant others, as well as observation during a Functional Behavior Assessment, will frequently yield important information as to what reinforces behavior for a student. Many published reinforcer surveys can be helpful in this process. If the individual routinely responds to items such as praise from significant others, one will not focus on a lower level reinforcer, such as tangibles, in a direct treatment plan unless the student requests them. Also, verbal praise should be paired with more extrinsic reinforcers so that praise may eventually assume reinforcing properties for the individual.

Alternatively, if the natural reinforcers in the environment work to support maintenance and generalization of the new behavior when environmental change occurs, external and intrusive reinforcement may not be necessary or desirable after natural reinforcers are shown to be effective.

Using Activities: Premack Principle: First_, Then_

The Premack Principle entails contingent, conditional access to some item or activity routinely chosen independently by an individual, to be delivered immediately after a less frequent behavior that has been targeted for increase. This principle is seen when one rewards oneself with a favorite TV program after completing that report, ice cream after finishing that spinach, after finishing that homework, free play after finishing those subtest items, and so forth. Typically, the more complex the reinforcer chosen (activities of interest can have a multitude of potential factors that make them satisfying) the less likely that satiation will occur.

Content on Reinforcement as a Positive Behavior Support Strategy was created by Wright, Cook, & Morton, and is based on: Wright, D.B. & Gurman, H.G. (1994). Positive intervention for serious behavior problems: best practices in implementing the Hughes Bill (A.B. 2586) and the positive behavior intervention regulations. Sacramento, CA: Resources in Special Education. This resource has been summarized here to ensure accessibility.