Applied Behavior Analysis – 15 rules of reinforcement (Part 1)

When we work with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), compliance and attention are some of the common problems that therapists and parents always encounter. In order to have an effective training process, it is important to have some powerful reinforcers ready before we start our practice. These are some helpful tips to guide you how to choose the right reinforcers.


  1.  Reinforcers should be reinforcing:
    Usually, parents or therapists tend to choose reinforcers that they assume the child may like or toys that are educational based; however, they may have overlooked whether the child really likes that toy. There are some signs for us to observe when we identify whether the toy/ activity can potentially be the reinforcers:

    1. Whether the child smiles when he plays
    2. Whether the child chooses the toy/ activity when he/ she is given a choice
    3. Whether he will be motivated to earn for the toy/ activity, i.e. if there is an increase in appropriate behavior and/ or response, and a decrease in inappropriate behavior and/ or response
    4. It is likely that the value of the reinforcer will change over time, and even within the same session, therefore it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the reinforcers as necessary

  2. Reinforcement should be contingent:
    Reinforcers should only be given when the child displays appropriate or expected behavior. If a child has free access to the reinforcer (except when we are trying to provide exposure to the toy to increase the value and interest in the toy), satiation is likely to occur and therefore greatly reduce the value of the reinforcer.

  3. Use a variety of reinforcers:
    As mentioned, to avoid satiation, it is important for us to have a variety of reinforcers ready to use. A variety of reinforcers allows us to rotate during teaching to keep the novelty of the toys/ activity. If your child only has a few reinforcers, you may want to consider reserving some of them for training the most challenging task.

  4. Social reinforcers should be paired with the toy(s)/ activity:
    For beginning learners, they may not have developed their desire in getting teachers’ or parents’ approval or praise, e.g. smile, high five, and tickling etc. However, when we pair social reinforcers with the toy/ activity as we present the item, the student will develop the association between the preferred toy/ activity with the social approval over time, which is helpful in fading the external reinforcers in the future. Social reinforcer is a more preferred reinforcer since it is more natural and easily accessible in the natural environment.

  5. Continuously develop and identify new reinforcers
    Go through the toy room, toy shop, or online to see if there are new things/ ways that we can try developing with the child. Do not worry if the child does not show much interest in the beginning, keep trying by repeatedly expose him/ her to the toy or introduce different ways to play. Also, we can observe and identify the element that the student likes and brainstorm toys/ activity that share the same or similar element. For example, if the child likes visual stimulation, spinning tops, kaleidoscope, pinball machine etc. could be potential toys that we can try. Usually, children with ASD tend to like cause and effect toys. Toys that have multiple ways to play or difficulty level can be some of the more potential items that the child may like.

  6. Choose age appropriate reinforcers
    If a child prefers and plays with age- appropriate toy, it is less obvious when we are using reinforcers and it is likely to increase peer acceptance in a social setting. It will also help us be more mindful as we develop new reinforcers with him/ her. At the same time, if a child prefers age appropriate reinforcers, he/ she is likely to contact them in the natural environment. christy_15-rules-of-ri_apsparks_1-4-768x768-1

  7. Add surprise and novel components to increase the value of reinforcer
    We all love surprises, including children. We can present the reinforcer by putting it in a surprise box or a magic hat. We can also pair with some sound effect and enthusiasm as we present the item.

  8. Delivery of reinforcement should occur immediately, especially in the beginning phase
    In the beginning, it is important for us to provide the reinforcement right after the desirable behavior occurs to help the child develop association between the behavior and the reinforcer. During the beginning phase in training a behavior or skill, timing (usually within seconds) is a very critical component that affect greatly whether the child picks up the skill. If we fail to do so, the child may forget the behavior that is being reinforced and reduce the chance of him displaying the behavior in the future. It will be even worse if we inadvertently reinforce an inappropriate behavior. Once the child understands the relationship between the behavior and the reinforcement, we need to systematically thin out the schedule of reinforcement to reduce the child’s dependence on a very frequent schedule of reinforcement. At the same time, it looks more natural to practice the skill and to deliver the reinforcer in the natural environment.

Related Article: Applied Behavior Analysis – 15 rules of reinforcement (Part 2)


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Information provided by:

Christy Lai , M.Sc., BCBA, Behavioral Consultant

Ms. Christy Lai is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis from St. Cloud State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Ms. Lai joined Autism Partnership (AP) in 2011 and she has extensive experience in working with children with ASD. Ms. Christy Lai currently take lead of the case supervision in the new established AP Beijing center. At the same time, she oversees the Little Learners program in Hong Kong and Shanghai and consults families in Asia. She directs overseas training to staff in the Train the Trainer program and provides parent education to families with children with ASD. She also conducts Jumpstart and PIIP programs locally and internationally. In additions, she is keen to take part in overseas ASD conferences and take lead of the design and production of AP teaching materials. Moreover, she helps with producing ABA training videos and articles in the APSPARKS website for public education.



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