How Positive Reinforcement Helps Shape Desired Behavior

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How Positive Reinforcement Helps Shape Desired Behavior

How Positive Reinforcement Helps Shape Desired Behavior

Jeremy Wilson, PhD, BCBA-D


Many of us have experienced positive reinforcement in our lives. Maybe your boss asked you to write a report, give a speech, or complete a project, and when you were done, she said, “Great job!” She was using positive reinforcement strategy to “set the stage” for your next assignment. The praise was the reward that made it more likely you would willingly take on the next task.

Positive reinforcement is not a thing. It is a well-studied system that involves the addition of a stimulus intended to increase the likelihood that similar behavior will occur in the future in similar situations or environments.  More simply put, positive reinforcement helps shape behavior under similar conditions. Positive reinforcement is used beyond the business world, and is an important tool used at home and in school for those with autism.

Through social interactions, children learn to behave in ways that effectively communicate their needs and wants. Parents can help shape desired behavior by using positive reinforcement – correctly and in a timely manner. For parents of children with autism, positive reinforcement is a key strategy. It’s very important to anticipate the child’s needs and have reinforcers ready. Here’s one example.

A child with autism, who is not yet speaking, attempts to tell his mother he is hungry. He points to the shelf where there is a box of crackers. When his mother sees the child pointing, she looks at the shelf, and then at the child, and says, “Do you want a cracker? Let me get one for you.” The child’s attempt to communicate is now reinforced, and he is very likely in the future to ask for a cracker in a similar manner.

However, reinforcement cuts both ways. What if, in this illustration, the mother is busy working around the house or caring for her other children, and doesn’t notice the child who is pointing or doesn’t realize it is a request for something specific?

Children will respond differently. Some might withdraw if their mother doesn’t notice the pointed finger and try again later. But other children may respond with screams and throwing a toy across the room, which may result in getting the cracker. Providing the cracker reinforces the screams and throwing toys.

Thankfully, one misstep does not ruin everything. Human behavior allows for second chances, so a supportive adult can create another opportunity for a child to learn to ask for things through more desirable behavior.

It’s important to understand that positive reinforcement (rewards) are not the same as bribes. Bribery is trying to persuade someone to act in one’s favor (typically dishonest or undesired acts) and often has the threat of punishment attached. As we know, bribery and punishment procedures are generally not accepted, nor are these efficient and sustainable practices like positive reinforcement. People also tend to take positive reinforcement for granted, without stopping to think about the effect this activity has on behavior. It’s important to understand how it works to know why it works.

There is some misconception about behavior therapies used with children with autism. The misconception is that bribery and punishment are often used as behavior change procedures. That’s not the case. Those who work with children and others with autism make exhaustive use of positive reinforcement to shape all types of behavior.

For these professionals, observation and planning are critical for designing individualized programs, too. Some children need immediate feedback, while others may be fine with a short delay. Still others may need praise more frequently over a longer period of time.

Positive reinforcement is the primary system we have to help children learn how to effectively communicate their needs and wants throughout their lives. This strategy can quickly help improve the child’s quality of life, as well as the lives of the other family members.

Learn more about how ABA-based therapy can help shape behavior though positive reinforcement.

About the Author

Dr. Jeremy Wilson is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst – Doctoral Designation (BCBA-D) who has provided applied behavior analysis (ABA)-based treatment to children and young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities since 1998. His special interests within the field applied behavior analysis are Precision Teaching, human performance thinking, organizational behavior management, and the analysis of verbal behavior. Jeremy currently serves as the Director of Process Improvement & Standardization at 360 Behavioral Health and spends his time developing and optimizing organization-wide processes and supporting various team projects.

Dr. Jeremy Wilson, BCBA-D

Director of Process Improvement & Standardization
360 Behavioral Health

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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) / Behavioral Therapy – Home Based

Our home-based ABA services are delivered in the home. Visits are scheduled to fit each family’s needs, preference and availability.

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