What is reinforcement in ABA?

When you’re new to ABA it can be very daunting. There are many acronyms and words with unusual meanings. In this post we’ll discuss reinforcement in ABA and how you can use it to increase behaviour. You can read the dictionary of ABA terms that I wrote last July.

ABA is all about teaching skills. We change behaviour and increase independence. One of the many ways that we do this is using reinforcement. I sometimes think of reinforcement as a contract between two people. If you do this, then this will happen – which makes it more likely that you will do this again in the future.

REINFORCEMENT: a procedure that makes a behaviour MORE likely to happen again in the future.

There are two kinds of reinforcement: positive and negative. Many people get confused. They think of positive reinforcement as being rewards and negative reinforcement as being punishment. But that’s not the case!

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT: adding something to the environment to make a behaviour more likely to occur again.

NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT: removing something to the environment to make a behaviour more likely to occur again.

Every person responds to reinforcement. Some reinforcers are tangible (we can touch them) and some are abstract. Sadly, there isn’t a formula for knowing what will be reinforcing for everyone. Some people can tell us what they’ll find reinforcing. When that’s not possible we use a technique called a reinforcer survey or a preference assessment. These help the team know what the child finds reinforcing. To do a preference assessment you need to provide many options of reinforcers and observe what the child chooses.

Little girl getting a high five as reinforcement in ABA.

Bribery vs Reinforcement in ABA

Importantly, there is a big difference between bribery and reinforcement in ABA. Bribery happens when you make a bargain in desperation. After you’ve already given the instructions but you encounter some resistance. Reinforcement lays out the contingency (the deal) at the beginning.

Bribery…

Parent: “Time for breakfast! Come eat some cereal.”

Child: “No way, cereal’s gross.”

Parent: “You love cereal. Come on, eat it. We’ve got to get to school.”

Child: “Nope!” (pushes cereal away)

Parent: “You’ve gotta eat something. Please? We’re going to be late.”

Child: “I’m never going to eat cereal again. “

Parent: “If you eat half a bowl, you’ll be able to watch YouTube in the car on the way to school.”

This is an example of bribery because the parent is desperate and is willing to change the ‘deal’ in order to get their child to eat.

Reinforcement…

Parent: “Time for breakfast. If you eat all your cereal you’ll be able to watch YouTube in the car on the way to school!”

Child: “I want to watch Paw Patrol.”

Parent: “Sure, that’ll be fun. Now eat up!”

This is an example of reinforcement because the parent isn’t changing their position after the fact in order to gain their child’s cooperation.

Is Reinforcement a bad thing?

Many opponents of reinforcement in ABA will argue that we’re teaching children to rely on tangible objects in order to ‘perform’. I like to highlight two things:

  1. EVERYONE works to get stuff. No matter how much you love your job, you wouldn’t go every day if there wasn’t a paycheque in it for you. Or you wouldn’t volunteer your time if you didn’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling from it (or high school community service credits!).
  2. Whenever we deliver a reinforcer, we pair it with social praise. This pairing will result in an increase in the value of the social praise as it is matched and presented with the reinforcer.

Conclusion:

Many people are fearful of the power that we can exert over others by using reinforcers. And thats can be a very real concern. However, when we take the approach of using reinforcers to help teach skills that allow for more independence we are empowering the child and improving their quality of life.

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