Reinforcement is defined as increasing the future likelihood of behavior. We use it to increase behaviors we want to see more of in the future, often within the context of skill acquisition. For example, if I want a student to complete his math worksheet every time he receives it, I might choose to offer a point or a token contingent on the completion of the worksheet. However, there is another type of reinforcement to consider – noncontingent reinforcement. What is the difference between contingent and noncontingent reinforcement and when would each be used?
Noncontingent reinforcement is simply put, the good in life. These rewards just happen, we don’t have to do anything to receive them. For example, a student’s art class can be a noncontingent reinforcement. They can be having a bad day and still get to go to art, their outlet for creativity and expression. Recess should just happen. Children should NOT have to work for recess.
These rewards happen at a designated time and are never affected by poor behavior. Noncontingent reinforcement can act as a reset for kids, a time to change their attitude about the day. This type of reinforcement gets people to the learning environment, it can serve as a hook for more. We all have our own versions of noncontingent reinforcement in our own lives: I don’t have to earn my favorite shows at the end of a long day – they just happen!
Remember that noncontingent rewards are something that always happen, even when poor behavior has occurred. These are scheduled things that the student can expect. So recess, by this definition, should be a noncontingent reinforcement. Movement breaks are another great example. If you have a student who has a movement or sensory break in their plan every 20 minutes, then those breaks happen even if the student has not completed any of their assignments.
Unlike its counterpart, contingent reinforcement does have a dependent factor. In order to receive the reward, something, usually a task, must be completed. For example, in order to receive a special sticker a student must complete all their math problems. With contingent reinforcement, there needs to be clear expectations. It is very important that those expectations do not change during the task time. Students need to understand exactly what they are working towards and exactly what they need to do to get there.
A contingent reinforcement should be something that is extra for the student, not a part of their normal routine. Contingent reinforcers keep the student in the learning environment and working towards progress; after all, we all stay for the cake! These reinforcers can also help to increase learning and task awareness. It is important to know what motivates your students, what rewards they will work for. A great way to find out this information is through preference assessments. You can learn more about those in a previous blog by clicking the image below.
Contingent reinforcers are something extra. This may be as simple as a sticker or a stamp. But it can also be things like fun activities, snacks, or even an extra movement break. With contingent reinforcers you will want to find out what motivates your student and then work those rewards in for effort or accomplishments. You have to be careful not to make the rewards too far out of reach. You want the necessary task to be challenging, but not at frustration level. We’ll often recommend a reward contingent only on elimination in the toilet when a child is being toilet trained. Can you imagine if that reward was given randomly without being dependent on the elimination? What would the child learn was being rewarded?
It is very easy to get contingent and noncontingent reinforcement confused. As therapists, teachers and even parents we tend to want to take things like recess or play time away from children. However, since these are noncontingent reinforcers we should not be doing this. Students should expect these times to happen and they shouldn’t have to earn those times during the day. As adults, we don’t make ourselves earn things that are a comfort for us, we just allow them. Our students should be no different. On the other hand, earning a piece of chocolate should never be an absolute.
We have to be aware of giving the noncontingent with no strings attached and of being specific and exact on the contingent. If we’re going to create the contingencies, make sure that they are clear. The child needs to knows exactly how the rewards can be accessed. This is when it is important that you understand the difference between contingent and noncontingent reinforcement.
The key to using reinforcers, whether contingent or noncontingent, is to state things positively. Say, “Remember, you can earn this” vs. saying, “Be careful, if you don’t do this, you will lose that.” Each child will be different and things can change daily on what works to motivate them. With time and patience you will find a happy balance between contingent and noncontingent reinforcement that allows you to make some gains with your student.