How Is Positive Reinforcement Used in ABA?

positive reinforcement for ABA

In treating autism with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, positive reinforcement is frequently used to teach acceptable behavior. An example of positive reinforcement might be rewarding a child with a video game if they complete a task, such as getting dressed.

Positive reinforcement is a primary principle of Applied Behavior Analysis, which is often considered the gold standard of autism treatment. In psychology, parenting, and education, positive reinforcement is closely related to the science of learning, which is a cornerstone of shaping desired behaviors. Positive reinforcement is essential to managing the symptoms of autism and should not be overlooked. ABA therapy is an evidence-based intervention with decades of established history. It is a proven, positive method for altering behavior over time.

ABA therapy works to help an individual manage the symptoms of their Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Through consistency and individualized treatment, autistic people can learn to cope with life, navigate symptoms, actively seek out interests, and gain independence.

In the practice of ABA therapy, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) work together to create a plan where the client can truly flourish. BCBAs keep the individual’s interests and passions at the forefront of their behavioral techniques.

A Concise History of Positive Reinforcement

In the 1950s, psychologist B.F. Skinner, known as the father of behavior analysis, established the idea that reinforced behavior is often repeated or strengthened. Consequently, behavior that is not reinforced is often extinguished or weakened.

B.F. Skinner is most commonly known for his “Skinner Box.” In 1948, he created a puzzle-like contraption to study the behavior of animals. In these experiments, the animal within the chamber pressed a button to earn an edible reinforcement. In some cases, Skinner used cocaine as a reinforcement or a non-edible reinforcement such as light or sound.

You may be wondering, what was the purpose of the Skinner box? With the box, researchers could meticulously study behavior in a controlled environment. Researchers used the Skinner box to determine the type and frequency of reinforcements that led to the highest rate of response in subjects. Eventually, Skinner’s experiments transitioned from a lab setting to the general population, with parents, educators, psychologists, and specialists using his principles. 

How Is Positive Reinforcement Used in Autism Treatment Today?

Positive reinforcement is widely used in a variety of settings in and beyond the field of autism treatment! Many employers use the principles of positive reinforcement without even realizing it. Parents use it with their children to encourage them to complete chores; teachers use it to increase productivity; companies use it with their employees to get work done. Clinicians may even use it on their patients to improve the consistency of healthy habits. Those in the field of ABA are very familiar with positive reinforcement and shaping behavior for success.

One of the essential components of positive reinforcement is consistency. In ABA therapy, RBTs collect data on a client’s behavior and report it to BCBAs for analysis. Consistency is necessary because the data will not be accurate if the positive reinforcement is inconsistent. The individual must be able to learn that the reward will be delivered if they exhibit a specific behavior. Eventually, the rewards can be faded out so that the desired behavior is automatic. Consistency also helps with goal setting, an instrumental component of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Example of Positive Reinforcement in ABA

If an autistic child sits quietly for 45 minutes, they are rewarded with iPad time for 15 minutes. If the child is motivated by the iPad, they will be more inclined to sit for 45 minutes. If the iPad only becomes available half of the time, the child will be less motivated and may struggle to sit appropriately.

Timing Is Everything: Five Schedules for Positive Reinforcement

  • Continuous schedule: the behavior is reinforced each time it occurs (this schedule can be challenging to maintain since it requires constant attention).
  • Fixed ratio: the behavior is reinforced after a specific number of occurrences (e.g., two or six times).
  • Fixed interval: the behavior is reinforced after a fixed amount of time (e.g., after two weeks of positive behavior).
  • Variable ratio: the behavior is reinforced after a variable number of times (e.g., after one time, then after another three, then after another four).
  • Variable interval: the behavior is reinforced after a variable amount of time (e.g., after 30 seconds, after 6 minutes, then after 12 minutes).

Characteristics of Positive Reinforcement in ABA Therapy

An essential aspect of positive reinforcement is that the reward must be delivered to the individual immediately after the targeted behavior has taken place. For example, if the reward is to play on a swing, they are allowed access to the swing as soon as the requested behavior or action is complete. The swing is not delivered 10 minutes later when the child can no longer make the correlation between the action and the reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement isn’t as simple as it sounds. For example, if the child who earned the swing begins to cry before they play on the swing, then the reward would not be delivered; that would be reinforcing the crying, not the preliminary targeted behavior. This can sometimes be challenging because behaviors can happen suddenly, but it’s imperative to ensure you are reinforcing the targeted behavior.

Parents can sometimes make the mistake of reinforcing the wrong behavior. For example, a child may have a meltdown; instead of removing all attention and proceeding, they may begin to yell at the child, inadvertently providing the child with attention, which is ultimately the function of the behavior or what the child wants.

Rewards must be customized for each client. What works for one client may not work for all. Some may find jumping on a trampoline to be reinforcing. Others may like to play with an airplane. Taking the time to discover what motivates a client is a crucial part of ABA therapy. A simple change in reinforcement style or object can affect how much effort a client is willing to exert.

Categories of ABA Positive Reinforcement

Because reinforcement should be specific to the individual, each type of reward or reinforcer will be different depending on the wants and needs of the individual. Categories of reinforcers are:

  • Edibles: drinks choices or food (water, milk, juice, fruit, pretzels, crackers, goldfish, etc.).
  • Activities: games, books, music, crafts, assisting the teacher, or a no-homework pass. Activities can be enjoyed in a group or by the individual.
  • Tangibles: personal possessions, a selection from a toy chest, swag, miniature cars and planes, action figures, and notebooks.
  • Social: vocal praise, smiles, handshakes, eye contact, thumps up, high fives, nodding, tickles, and words of affirmation.
  • Tokens: tickets, stars, stickers, imaginary bucks, tokens, or smileys that can be exchanged for breaks, computer time, movie tickets, late passes, special privileges, or anything of value to the recipient.

What Is the Difference Between Positive Reinforcement vs. Bribery?

Bribery and positive reinforcement are not the same things. Let’s explore examples:

  • Bribery: Ben is having a meltdown at the grocery store. His mother tells him that if he stops the negative behavior, he will get Wendy’s on the way home.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Ben can sometimes have meltdowns at the grocery store, but today he did not. His mother stops by Wendy’s on the way home and lets Ben know that his positive behavior has earned him the special treat.
  • Bribery: Liz’s teacher asks her if she gives her 12 stickers will she refrain from leaving the lunch line when she feels frustrated by the wait. Waiting appropriately is one of Liz’s target behaviors.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Liz’s teacher notices how well Liz is waiting in the lunch line. After receiving her lunch appropriately, Liz’s teachers asked Liz if she would like to go on a walk with a preferred person as a special reward.

Bribing individuals when the goal is to change behavior for the long term is not recommended or effective. In fact, in many cases, it will only encourage the individual to continue engaging in unwanted behaviors because they have come to find they will get what they want regardless. Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective ways to alter behavior in the long run.

Positive Reinforcement in ABA Therapy

Research suggests that positive reinforcement is an excellent means of promoting change and learning. Unlike bribery, positive reinforcement rewards positive behaviors and decreases unwanted behaviors over time. A good ABA provider will focus on positive reinforcement. When considering an ABA clinic for autism treatment, be sure to ask about the types of positive reinforcement that might be used during sessions with your child. If you’re interested in ABA therapy for your child, we can help. Call us at 844-923-4222 for a free, no-obligation consultation today.

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