by Julie Tuifel, MSEd, BCBA
|Photo by slightly everything|
I wanted to take a few minutes to delve into the topic of reinforcement. Reinforcement is the addition or removal of something, immediately following a behavior, that subsequently results in the future increase of that behavior. Using simple preference assessments and observations we can often quickly identify items that may be used as reinforcement. Every now and then a student comes along whose preferences are not easy to identify. I was lucky enough to have one such student in my class this year. While his peers were choosing M & M's and Elmo toys he declined all offers of delectable edibles and toys. But he watched. As we identified all his peers favorite nibbles and subsequently organized a separated container to keep everyone’s favorites at close range, he watched. He noticed how all his peers wanted that container. Soon he wanted to check out that container. We let him explore its exterior. Soon he was perusing its' interior. He moved on to smelling and further exploration. Little by little we watched as he tentatively tasted his first M & M, first a little lick then a real taste. We never pushed, we just watched and waited. Over the next four months we were able to bring a solid few edibles up to true reinforcement status. His rate of learning new targets increased dramatically.
In addition to allowing exploration and modeling to assist in the reinforcement process, new stimuli and reassessing existing reinforcement values are important tools in our classroom. Variable responding has been occurring this year due primarily to reinforcement potency. Several students can score a 100% one day when the reinforcer is highly desired then scores plummet when interest wanes. On the flip side when desire becomes so tremendous responses may plummet as well. It has become a delicate balance to constantly assess reinforcement interest and engage in some detective work. For example John is hungry and very interested in chips – he scores 100% while working for chips. After lunch he’s full and sleepy, he scores 30%. Steven loves his IPAD – he’s so excited to work for it! After the first response and he earns his IPAD, it needs to be removed for the second trial. Then he’s upset and can no longer work! Without free access to his beloved IPAD , the reinforcement value plummets. These issues can affect rates of acquisition across the board. A seasoned teacher can use these tools and perform a delicate dance of constant assessment and innovation.
Another important tool this year was to remember the power of positive reinforcement. Being vigilant to Identify when our students are giving correct responses more often than the negative has been a challenge. If we can capture those correct responses and provide reinforcement, we are on our way to bigger and better things. Falling into the trap of constant redirection and "all done" mantras does the opposite. Another great reinforcement story surrounds a youngster who seemed to be hitting a road block. No real progress and seemingly "stuck", with little to no eye contact ever. We ran the simplest eye contact program based on the principles of reinforcement. We simply reinforced every eye gaze during DTT and lo and behold the principle held. Our little guy was giving the best eye contact of our class! Generalizing to group settings as well.
Reinforcement principles are integral to our classroom success. Monthly full reinforcement assessments (MSWO) are important to identify new reinforcers. More importantly are the many subtle mini assessments done within programs or prior to programs on a daily basis.
Reinforcement remains a tremendous and valuable tool in our boxes. It’s value ebbs and flows and our class has to be aware of that and use it. It’s been an interesting and fun ride!