Principles of Reinforcement - Cultivate Behavioral Health & Education - ABA Therapy Parent Training

This week in our Parent Training series, we will be exploring different principles of reinforcement. The powerpoint presentation below provides audio narration for accessibility. Click on the link below to follow along.

Parent Training: Principles of Reinforcement

Using Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a powerful tool that we utilize when we are teaching new behaviors as well as when we are maintaining behaviors. Reinforcement is a consequence that increases the future frequency of that type of behavior that immediate precedes it.

We often talk about “positive” and “negative” reinforcement. Positive reinforcement offers when something is added to the behavior that increases the future frequency of that behavior. Negative reinforcement occurs when something is removed following a behavior that increases the future frequency of that behavior.

It’s important to note that for these terms, positive and negative, that we are thinking in the terms of “adding” and “removing”, not “good” or “bad”.

Choosing Appropriate Reinforcers

When we’re looking to choose appropriate reinforcers, we must consider a few variables in order to keep the reinforcement differentiated. This includes thinking about the value of the reinforcer, the frequency in which the reinforcer is being provided, the amount or how much of a reinforcer is being provided, and the variety of reinforcers available.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at each of these.

The Value of Reinforcers

When selecting an appropriate reinforcer, the value of that reinforcer must match the amount of work it takes to earn the reinforcer. What this means is that for new or difficult tasks, we must use a more powerful reinforcer. If something is going to take me more effort or more time, there must be a bigger payout in the end so I must use a more powerful reinforcer.

This is different when we are working on mastered skills or something that is easier. We still want to use a powerful reinforcer, but this can be something slightly less valuable.

For example, if I am being taught to tie my shoes and this is a very difficult skill that takes a few minutes I want to earn something powerful such as 5 minutes with an iPad once I’m finished.

But if I’m simply being told to sit in my chair, I might get a high five when I complete that task.

Frequency of Reinforcement

How often should a reinforcer be provided? Sometimes we can use specific schedules of reinforcement as we’re working to increase and maintain behaviors. Two common examples that we frequently use are: continuous schedules and intermittent schedules of reinforcement.

Continuous schedules of reinforcement work to provide a reinforcer for every occurrence of a targeted behavior. So, in this example of targeted behavior, this can be any particular skill that we’re placing a focus on. These continuous schedules of reinforcement should be used when we’re teaching brand new skills as well as when we’re teaching difficult skills. This means that every time that particular skill is observed, a reinforcer is going to be provided.

In our previous example when we talking about tying shoes: every single time I were to tie my shoes, I’d be provided with a reinforcer.

This is different from an intermittent schedule of reinforcement which works to provide a reinforcer for some but not all occurrences of a particular behavior. This type of reinforcement schedule is often utilizes when we’re working to maintain previous skills or skills that are a little bit easier to complete.

In our previous example when we talking about sitting in a chair: since that behavior is pretty easy for me, I might get a high-five every five times that I complete that task rather than every single time I sit in that chair.

Amount of Reinforcement

Another way to differentiate our reinforcement is to look at how much of a reinforcer is being provided. We can do this by providing the same reinforcer across these examples but by providing a different amount or for a different amount of time.

So for example, we have a small cheese burger and a large cheese burger. When I complete a really difficult skill, or something that’s new for me, I might get a larger portion of that cheeseburger. If I’m doing something that’s easier, I’m going to get just a couple of bites.

The same can be done with something like an iPad. We can vary the amount of time that we’re allowed to play with the iPad depending on the task that we complete. For example, if I’m completing something new or difficult, I might be able to get 5-10 minutes with the iPad. If I do something that’s pretty easy or standard, I might only get to listen to one song or watch one short video.

Variety of Reinforcers

As we continue our discussion on reinforcement, we also want to consider the variety of our reinforcers. It’s very important to consider a wide variety of reinforcers to be able to provide so that the child does not become satiated or become sick of the reinforcer being provided over time.

We can provide edible reinforcers which can include things like candy, goldfish, grapes, raisin – basically anything that the child enjoys eating and finds preferable. You can vary the quatity of that reinforcer being provided as well.

Sensory reinforcement is another way that reinforcers can be delivered. This can include simples things such as tickles or maybe even a song being played.

Tangible reinforcement is another one. This can include either toys or games that the child can physically access for completing a task. Again, making sure that we’re picking a toy that the child really enjoys, not one that we think he enjoys.

We can also include different activities as reinforcers. This can include maybe reading a story with mom and dad or playing a board game together.

We can also include social reinforcers. Hugs, high-fives, social praise such as “good job, buddy!” and “awesome work!”

It’s important to make sure we are varying these reinforcers. So the first time a child completes a task, they might get something like a goldfish. And the next time they’re going to get a hug and a high-five from mom and dad.

Preference Assessments

Preference assessments are a really powerful tool that we can utilize when we’re trying to identify reinforcers. It’s important to note that we never want to assume that an item or activity is serving as a reinforcer. We need to look at the child’s behavior and the reinforcer they are selecting to really see if that item is truly a reinforcer or just something that they prefer over time.

Preference assessments can be used to identity what is serving as a reinforcer as well as how an individual ranks the available reinforcers.

This type of assessment can be conducted by asking the individual what they want, looking at opportunities for them to select reinforcers, and obverving the child in their natural environment.

For example, we can ask them choices. “Did you want a goldfish or did you want a cookie?” We can also select a different variety of snacks and put them on the table in front of the child and ask them to pick one.

This can also be done with toys. You can take all of their favorite toys available and then you can watch to see which ones they are actually going to select.


The timing and delivery of a reinforcer is a really important thing to discuss. Ideally, reinforcement should be delivered within 3 seconds of the behavior in order to be the most effective. For example, if we are teaching a child to clap their hands: we say “clap your hands” and the child completes the task, and then we immediate deliver that reinforcer, we are guaranteeing that the reinforcer being provided is as a result of the child completing that task.

If we were to say, “clap your hands” and then the child ends up walking away, and then we provide the reinforcer, we are actually reinforcing a different behavior: walking away in that circumstance. So we want to make sure that the timing matches up with the behavior that we’re hoping to continue in the future.

Remember, for those new behaviors, we want to use that continuous reinforcement to reinforce every occurrence of that desired behavior immediately following its presentation.

That concludes this presentation on principles of reinforcement. For additional parent trainings on topics such as: crisis management, feeding and sleeping problems, visit our Parent Training page here.

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