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What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is one of the most powerful strategies available for teaching your client.  A reinforcer is anything that your client enjoys (praise, hugs, candy, preferred toys, etc.) that when provided following the occurrence of a behavior increases the probability that the behavior will increase or happen again.  For example, a child points to a cookie.  You hold the cookie in front of the child and tell her, “Say cookie.”  When she says “cookie” you praise her and give her the cookie.  The use of the cookie as a reinforcer for language increases the chance that the child will say “cookie” next time she wants a cookie.

Reinforcement or Reward?

We often hear the words reinforcer and reward used interchangeably.  However, they have different meanings.  A reinforcer is something that is known to increase the occurrence of a behavior, while a reward is something that may not necessarily increase the behavior.  Therefore, reinforcers are rewards, but rewards may not necessarily be a reinforcer.  For this reason we must be careful in how we reward children.  In other words, when we want to increase a behavior we need to be sure the items we choose are items the child is willing to work for (i.e. that the items are reinforcing).  It is also important to keep in mind that what is reinforcing for one child may not be reinforcing for another child.  The items that act as reinforcers for your child’s behavior will also change over time.  Because of this, it is important to rotate reinforcers so that your child does not get tired of one reinforcer too quickly.  Similarly, it is important that your child does not have free access to the items you are using for reinforcers.  If Play-doh is a reinforcer and your child can play with Play-doh all day long, then your child will be less likely to work for Play-doh (i.e. it will lose its reinforcing value – see Too Much of a Good Thing).


Be Careful Not to Reinforce the Wrong Thing!

We must also be careful in how we use reinforcers.  We can accidentally reinforce negative behaviors in children.  For example, if your attention is a reinforcer for your child and you respond to negative behaviors with attention (even with verbal reprimands such as, “Don’t do that”), you may actually increase the likelihood that your child will exhibit the inappropriate behavior again.  In addition, for the child who does not like to comply with adult requests, time-out for misbehavior during demands may reinforce the misbehavior because it allows the child to escape the request. 

Catch Them Being Good

One very important way to impact your child’s behavior is to “catch them being good.”   The idea behind this is that for most children attention is a reinforcer.  So when you reinforce your child’s good behavior by providing them with praise and attention, you are teaching your child what you want them to do and increasing the likelihood that they will do that good behavior again.  When you “catch your child being good” and respond by telling them exactly what they are doing that is good, you are teaching your child how you want them to behave.   Instead of just saying “nice job!” tell your child exactly what you liked about what they did, “Nice job sharing your truck, Jake!”  

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviour (DRO)

Another strategy for using reinforcement is called Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO).   With this procedure we use attention and other things your child enjoys to reinforce the absence of problem behavior.  When using this strategy it is important to specifically define the problem behavior  (e.g. aggressions such as hitting, kicking, and biting).  In addition, we need to determine how often the problem behavior occurs.  For example, does your child engage in aggressive problem behavior once a day, once an hour, or once a minute?  Based on that information we determine the interval for reinforcement and set a timer that goes off to remind us to provide the reinforcer as long the target problem behavior has not been observed.  If the problem behavior is observed, the timer is reset.  When providing reinforcement we specifically tell the child what they did that was good and provide any additional reinforcers.  For problem behavior that occurs very frequently, the amount of time we expect your child to behave before providing reinforcement will be very short.  Over time we are able to increase the amount of time your child can wait without problem behavior before receiving the reinforcer.  For more on implementing a DRO, read How to Implement a DRO

7 thoughts on “What is Reinforcement?”

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  7. What is a reinforcer?

    For a methodological behaviorist, a reinforcer is any event virtual or real, that changes any characteristic of behavior, from rate to intensity to form.

    For a radical or biological behaviorist, a reinforcer is a positive change in a specific neurologic state that reflects an affective tone or feeling.

    The latter was proposed by the radical behaviorists John Donahoe and David Palmer in 1994, and was independently confirmed by the affective neuroscientist Kent Berridge in the same and following decades. Donahoe and Palmer proposed a neurologically grounded definition of reinforcement. Reinforcement reflected a discrepancy principle, when behavior is continually mediated by the activity of dopamine neurons or dopaminergic system elicited by continuous correction error between predictions and outcomes. Dopamine scales with the importance of the reinforcer, and is responsible for a feeling of energy and arousal, but not pleasure. The former principle is still the guiding principle of present-day behaviorists or behavior analysts, but discrepancy principles are now core to incentive motivation theories in affective neuroscience.

    The dichotomy between both principles is stark in both principle and practice. Whereas a methodological behaviorist is concerned about the effectiveness of reinforcers, a radical behaviorist Is concerned about how reinforcement induces affect. To a teacher, parent, society, or politic, the effectiveness of reinforcement is paramount. However, for an individual, affect in reinforcement is of first importance. The latter is reflected in the recent work of Berridge, who emphasized that behavior change must be oriented to eliciting continuous positive affect, which is epitomized by an active and meaningful life. With this perspective, the metric for success for behaviorists is not societal control, but individual freedom, and a behaviorally engineered society that focuses on constructing the avenues that enrich the meaning or value of life, or a fully realized self-control in a free society.

    John Donahoe: Behavior Analysis and Neuroscience

    The Joyful Mind: Kringelbach and Berridge

    ‘A Mouse’s Tale’ Learning theory for a lay audience from perspective of modern affective neuroscience

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