Would you faithfully go to work every day if you did not receive a paycheck at some point? Your paycheck is a payoff. Much of what we do in everyday life is driven by reinforcement, the payoff. What is reinforcement? Reinforcement is anything that increases a behavior. There are two types of reinforcement — positive and negative and, yes, both of these do increase behavior. We will spend this time talking about positive reinforcements as it is one of the most effective tools that you can use in your classroom or home. Positive reinforcement is something you like or enjoy and when behavior is followed by something you enjoy, you are likely to repeat the behavior. Many people feel that children learn through these principles of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement can be divided into two categories — primary and secondary. Primary reinforcement is considered to fulfill a basic biological need. Examples of this include food and sleep. Secondary reinforcements include social praise, engaging in preferred activities, or receiving a token or tangible item.
Don't assume that you know what a child with ASD likes. It is important to ask a child, observe a child or perform a preference assessment. When asking a child about reinforcers, remember that multiple reinforcement inventories can be found on the Internet. You can also simply sit down with a child and ask them questions like "What do you like to do after school?" or "What's your favorite food?"or "What toys do you like to play with?" When observing a child, set up a controlled environment to include three distinct areas: food, toys, and sensory. Then allow the child somewhat free access to this environment. Watch and record the area that the child goes to first. Record the specific items from this area that the child chooses. This item should be considered highly reinforcing to the child. Continue this process until you have identified three to five items. Remember that simply looking at an item does not make it reinforcing, but actually playing with it or eating it would.
It's equally important to think outside the box when selecting reinforcements. Not every child wants an M&M or a goldfish cracker. For instance, I once had a child who loved to run his hands through my hair. A perfect reinforcement for him was a fake hair attachment that was purchased at a mall kiosk. Would you have ever thought that a ball of hair could serve as reinforcement? I certainly didn't! I've also supported a child who loved to have his head squeezed! That too served has a highly motivating reinforcer!
For some children, it may be necessary to perform a preference assessment to determine what items are reinforcing. A preference assessment consists of gathering multiple items in the categories of food, toys and sensory. To begin the assessment select up to three items and place them on the table in front of the child. Be sure to leave a fair amount of distance between the items so that there is a clear indication of the item that the child is seeking. The child may reach for the item, or even gaze at the item. Both of these should be considered attempts at accessing that item. Once the child has reached for an item, allow him time to play or consume that item. Then lay the items back out in a different order and repeat this process. Once the child has chosen an item two or three times, that item can be considered as a highly desirable item and removed from the process. Continue the preference assessment until you have identified three to five items. It will be necessary to identify reinforcers for a child multiple times throughout the year.
Remember, if we learn from reinforcement then we had better find out what is reinforcing to the child we teach and care for.