Let’s talk a little bit more about reinforcements. Whether we realise it or not, we use reinforcements in our daily life. A reinforcer is defined as something that increases the behaviour that occurred immediately before reinforcement was presented. A reinforcer can be positive or negative. A positive reinforcer is the act of presenting something to increase a behaviour. For example, giving a favourite toy, a hug, or a candy to a child. A negative reinforcer on the other hand, is the act of removing something already present to increase a behaviour. A good example would be a child screaming whenever he doesn’t want to eat his vegetables. His screaming behaviour would be negatively reinforced because every time he screams, his mom would remove the vegetables from his plate. Another example would be turning off the alarm clock. Whenever the alarm clock rings, the behaviour of hitting the stop button on the alarm clock will be negatively reinforced because the alarm noise stops.
Basically, if it doesn’t increase a behaviour, it isn’t a reinforcer. Each child has different reinforcers and it may vary at different times. We as ABA therapists, always pair tangible reinforcers with social praise, hugs, eye contact and high fives because social elements are usually not an automatic reinforcer for many children with Autism (ASD).
It is important to note that positive reinforcement is not bribery. There is usually a common confusion between the two. Reinforcement is when the child receives the reinforcer AFTER the desired behaviour occurs. Bribery on the other hand, is when you give the child something BEFORE the desirable behaviour occurs. For example, when a child is screaming, you tell the child if he or she stops screaming, he or she will get a toy. Parents will usually have to wait to see if the child would live up to their promise to engage in the appropriate behaviour. Many caretakers, teachers and parents get frustrated when the child does not behave appropriately even after being presented with his or her favourite toy. With bribery, it’s sort of like a gamble to see whether or not your child would comply. Going back to the example given, the act of giving the child a toy while he or she is screaming will also likely reinforce future screaming in order to gain access to his favourite toy. The child learns that “If I scream, I get the toy”.
Instead of paying for the desired behaviours, a positive alternative would be to provide the child with an expectation of the appropriate behaviour. For example, saying, “You can play after you finish your homework”. Positive reinforcement is only given after the child engages in the desirable behaviour and effective reinforcement would keep the good behaviours occurring. To avoid bribery or threats, we should all set our expectations from the start and should not wait till the child exhibits undesired behaviours to bribe or threaten. We should instead, allow the child to understand out expectations from the get-go and to know what the reward is for following through the task. Most importantly, always remember to reinforce immediately after a desired behaviour occurs to avoid inadvertently reinforcing some other behaviour.