Skip to content

When to Use ABA Preference Assessments

What’s your favorite reinforcer? I know what mine is. But how do we know what our students’ favorite reinforcers are, especially if they can’t tell us? Today’s topic is all about ABA preference assessments. 

What is Reinforcement?

Sometimes you get in the rut of “I’m always gonna give out this one particular reinforcer to every single kid” and call it a reinforcer, even if it’s not increasing the future likelihood of behavior. But that’s what the definition of reinforcement is. So to alleviate that, during staff training, usually every six months or so, I’ll give out a sheet to the staff. There would be things like would you rather have a bubble bath or a shower? Would you rather eat chocolate or chips? And then we go around and talk about it. And some people say, “I really like to shower” or “I really like taking a bath.” It really drives home the point that we all like different things. So should our learners. 

Reinforcement is such a big part of what we do. And by reinforcement, we mean that it increases the future likelihood of behavior. It’s only reinforcement if it changes the future likelihood of behavior. So I can give a student bubbles as much as they want. But it’s only a reinforcer if it actually changes that student’s behavior. So it’s important to know what our student’s individual preferences are because then we can use the principle of reinforcement to change behavior. 

What is a Preference Assessment in ABA?

That’s why we like to use what we call preference assessments in ABA. It sounds intimidating and like a really complicated ABA procedure when really, it’s just finding out what they like. Sometimes, if you have a student who’s verbal, it’s as simple as saying, “hey, what do you wanna work for today?” Sometimes that’s all a preference assessment has to be; it doesn’t need to be any more formal than that. It doesn’t need to be a scary sheet of paper that you’ve got to do all these randomized trials and everything else.

In the textbooks, they talk about multiple stimuli presentation, with replacements, and all of that. But you don’t have to worry about that for the purpose of finding out what students are motivated for. What I like to do is just watch them, and see what they’re interested in. And sometimes that includes what they are gaining with some of the negative behavior or some of the challenging behavior. Is it that they really want someone to chase them? Is it that they really like being silly? 

Sometimes we become a little bit limited with reinforcers that we offer students as in a tangible; like a toy or item. And if we think about all of the different functions of behavior, students are motivated for lots of different things. Attention, sensory, and escape can also be reinforcers. So think about what they are doing. What are they currently engaging in? Watch them with their peers, and watch what toys they go for. Be creative. Don’t just use those tangibles as reinforcers, but give them an opportunity to have silly time or stand at the front of the room and tell a joke, or run around the halls and be chased if that’s a safe option. 

Example of Preference Assessment ABA

With challenging behavior, we could channel those preferences into reinforcers for behaviors that we want to see more of. I had a student once who loved silly noises. He would emulate subway noises and elevator noises and car noises. So I would make a rocket ship underneath the table and he would get to play these noises. Or we would pretend we’re on an elevator and he’d do the beep, beep beep noise. We’d go into outer space and we’d be on the moon. It was super, super fun for him, and just incorporating that within the therapy session was enough of a reinforcer for him. 

I also had a student who was very challenging to find reinforcers for and I kept asking people who are working with him what he liked. They said he just wanted to play on his iPad. And so I thought I’d get some snacks and see what he’s interested in. So we just did it really informally. I bought a whole bunch of fun snacks, and I sat down during snack time and pretended to eat them. I’d offer him one as I go, “do you want to share my snack?” And sometimes he would go for it, sometimes he wouldn’t. And if he was interested in it, that was his preference. If he liked it and he told me he liked it, then we may use that as a reinforcer. 

How Often Should Preference Assessments Be Conducted?

What students are into and what they’re motivated for changes. You do have to do this somewhat frequently, because they may either get bored of something that has been acting as a reinforcer and then it stops becoming reinforcing. Or their preferences change. As we grow up, and as we change, so do the things that we enjoy. So continuously update that and check in with what they’re into, or what the latest trends are, and what you can create as a reinforcer. Even look at the time of day. Have they just eaten lunch, have they just had a whole bunch of play and they are tired? They don’t want to do it anymore. So looking at that as well. 

And another good source is the parents. You can always ask parents, teachers, and caregivers what the child is into. It’s also good to start that conversation because sometimes if they get too much of something at home, it limits our ability to use it as a reinforcer. Or if they get too much of it at school, the parents might not be able to use it. So being on the same page with what we’re using as reinforcers, how we’re using those reinforcers, what a child might be into at home, how we can use that at school, all of those are good conversations to have to keep those reinforcers meaningful and useful. 

ABA Preference Assessments Data Sheet

We have a really cool reinforcement checklist that’s pretty comprehensive with different things that students might like. It’s broken down by food, toys, and different activities. 

You can keep updating it as your students’ preferences change. Ask the parents to fill it out so that you just have a running list. Anyone who’s working with a student now can check that list. It’s a really easy place to go to know what their specific reinforcers are. 

Click the download button below for a copy!


In summary, we discussed ABA preference assessments and how they don’t need to be daunting and scary. We gave you some examples of how you can do preference assessments, and some of the best ways to conduct preference assessments. Talk to staff members and parents for sure and make sure that they’re continually updated.

For more information on ABA preference assessments, download the reinforcement checklist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Captcha loading...