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What Makes a Reinforcer Effective?


Have you ever found yourself giving rewards after your child does something well but fail to see the behavior happen again? Are you concerned that the reinforcers that you are giving are not working to truly encourage those positive behaviors? Even if your child loves the reward that you give them, certain things need to be in place for it to truly work to reinforce the behavior you are trying to boost. Here we will review several key ingredients in the recipe for effective reinforcement.

Dad giving reward to child

When planning rewards, it is helpful to know what your child is motivated by in the moment. Before a task starts, giving them options of a few recently preferred items or activities can be helpful in harnessing motivation. Say you have a motivating reward prepped and ready to go, and your child just does something that you’d love to encourage. They cleaned their room without being asked! They started and completed their math homework without complaining! They pet the dog gently! What now? 

The following components are key in ensuring that your consequence is powerful enough to reinforce the behavior that you would like to see continue or increase in the future: Contingency, immediacy, size, and deprivation. 

Contingency

Does the reinforcer that’s provided come only after the desired behavior takes place? A reward is more powerful if it is only given after the desired behavior has actually taken place. If a reinforcer is given for cleaning their room, but the parent hasn’t confirmed that their child actually cleaned their room, or the cleaning was only partially done, you could unintentionally be reinforcing behaviors other than the target desired behavior (ex. cleaning their room).

Often in classrooms or in therapy sessions, first/then language and visuals are used to help children understand this connection. First do this, then you can have that. An example of this would be a mother saying “First do your homework, then you can play outside with the neighbors.” Until the child completes his or her homework adequately (the desired behavior), play time with the neighbors (the reinforcer) should be unavailable. If the child cries, refuses to complete their work, or doodles instead of completing his or her work but still gets to play with the neighbors outside, problematic behavior is being reinforced rather than the target positive behavior. Only once the target “first” behavior is completed should access to the “then” reinforcer be allowed. 

Immediacy

Since reinforcement is the event that occurs following a behavior, the more immediate the reinforcer is provided following a behavior, the more likely you are to be reinforcing that target behavior and not something else that has happened in the meantime. For instance, your son says “I want goldfish!” While you are getting goldfish from the kitchen, he starts screaming and crying, and then you provide the goldfish. What is actually reinforced in this scenario? Is it the lovely full-sentence request? No. In this scenario, the screaming and crying is the behavior immediately preceding the reinforcing event, so that is the behavior that will be more likely to occur again in the future. “The direct effect of reinforcement drops off quickly as you increase the delay, even to 3 to 4 seconds. And even a 1-second delay may reinforce the wrong behavior.”1 Ultimately, the more quickly your child gets rewarded, the more likely that you’ll be reinforcing the behavior that you’re intending to encourage. 

Size

How much of a reinforcer should we provide? It may seem obvious, but your reward will be more effective if it is significant in size or quantity, especially if the behavior is new or challenging for your child to complete. Few adults today would be likely to continue showing up to work and put forth effort into their job if their paycheck for an eight-hour day was $4.00. Likewise, the amount of a reinforcer for a child completing a task should be proportionate to the amount of effort the child has to put forth. If a child typically struggles with getting dressed but does so quickly, on their own without complaining, providing a little praise (e.g. "good job") with 30 seconds of a preferred activity may not be quite as effective as a lot of behavior-specific praise (e.g. Wow! You got dressed all by yourself! You put pants and a shirt on so quickly without any help! That’s amazing!) along with a substantial amount of a reward (for some, this could be 15 minutes of their favorite activity).

The more rarely occurring or challenging a behavior is for a child, the more substantial the size of the reinforcer should be initially. According to Cooper, Heron and Heward, when deciding how much reinforcement to offer, it is best to follow the adage “Reinforce abundantly, but don’t give away the store.” Offer an amount of reinforcement that is proportional to the reinforcer quality and the amount of work that it takes for a child to produce the target response.2 

Child ignoring direction from mom

Deprivation

The fourth key piece in determining how effective your reinforcer will be is that of deprivation. If a person has limited access to a particular type of reinforcer, or if they have gone a substantial amount of time without access to a reinforcer, then the reinforcer is likely to be more effective than if they have unlimited access to it or have just recently had access. The opposite of deprivation is called satiation. If, for instance, you have been hiking in the wilderness and without cell reception for days, you’ll be much more likely to work harder or pay more to get access to a working phone or internet than if you had just spent a day in the office with unlimited internet access. Likewise, if a person just ate a large meal, they’ll be less likely to ask for food than they would if they had not eaten for several hours. Keeping this in mind, before focusing on a target behavior, ensure that the reinforcer that you intend on using is actually motivating in the moment to your child. If you plan to reward your child cleaning her room with 15 minutes of screen time, avoid allowing access to screen time close to the time when you are placing that request. It would also be beneficial to limit screen time throughout the day so that it is a true treat, rather than something that could be accessed at any time, regardless of your child’s behavior.

Contingency, immediacy, size, and deprivation: if you’re looking to cook up some stellar reinforcement this holiday season, remember these key ingredients!  

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Footnotes

1 Malott, R. W., & Trojan Suarez, E. A. (2004). Elementary principles of behavior (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
2 Cooper, J., Heron, T. and Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, Nj: Pearson.

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Rachel Dowse is a Goally team member, former middle school teacher, and a practicing BCBA residing in Nashville, TN. When she's not working, she loves spending time with her husband and two children hiking, playing outdoors, and drinking good coffee with a book in hand.

Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.