Positive Reinforcement Opens the Doors to Learning

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white girl opening old doorWhen we hear about positive reinforcement most of us like it because we believe in being nice, positive and supportive.

In the field of Behavior Analysis, “positive reinforcement” is a technical and scientific term; it has a precise meaning that goes beyond general notions of being polite and encouraging.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Here is the technical definition of positive reinforcement: “The offering of desirable effects or consequences for a behavior with the intention of increasing the chance of that behavior being repeated in the future.” (Dictionary.com)

Basically it means that an action followed by a positive consequence (reward, money, praise, social recognition), will increase, or, be performed more often.  So, positive reinforcement is a way to increase desired behaviors.  Positive reinforcement is not only a definition, it is a scientific law.  Years of research in experimental and applied Behavior Analysis have proven that positive reinforcement increases behavior.  See “What is ABA and Why is it so Important to Autism?

How do you do Positive Reinforcement?

The technically correct way to do positive reinforcement is to present a desired item to the learner immediately after he performs the desired action.  “A reinforcer is anything that, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again,” (courtesy of Karen Pryor). The desired item can by anything: candies, treats, a chance to play with a toy, tokens for special treats or privileges, or money; social praise or recognition can sometimes serve as a reinforcer.

The key point is that the item must be desired by the learner.  In fact, there is a test.  If the reinforcer does not increase the rate of the desired behavior, the reinforcer has failed.  It is important to monitor reinforcers, to vary them and experiment with new ones, to make sure that the child continues to desire them and  work for them.

What does this mean for autism?

It means that we now know how to increase desired behaviors and skill levels in children who can be very challenging to teach. Our children with autism often display lots of unproductive behaviors and few productive behaviors.  Positive reinforcement can change this balance.

In the case of autism, if a child is asked to point to a tree, and then points correctly to the tree, he will immediately receive a reinforcer (a candy, a treat, or other consequence that he likes).  This will result in the child correctly pointing to a tree more often when someone asks him to point to a tree.  Once a child can point consistently to a tree, he can be asked to point to a flower or a rock, and thus learn to point to those objects.  Slowly, slowly you can build up the child’s repertoire of knowledge.

Positive reinforcement opens the doors to functional skills and academic learning.  It is at the heart of the autism therapies, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Verbal Behavior Therapy (VB).  In these therapies, children are assessed to determine their existing skill levels, learning programs are developed to teach them new skills in small increments, and these new skills are built with positive reinforcement.  Our kids with autism want to learn.  Positive reinforcement is the tool that will help them achieve.

Learn to use positive reinforcement effectively

I have created a free online course for autism parents that will get you started in observing your child, noticing productive behaviors, and using positive reinforcement to get more of those productive behaviors.

Click here for more information or to register


What is TAGteach?

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.

With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely and quickly. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children (and adults) can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementFor more information visit the TAGteach website.

Join the free TAGteach Yahoo Group.

TAGteach taggers are available here.

See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism or feel free to ask me a question (with no obligation).

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Martha Gabler

Autism parent. Director, Kids' Learning Workshop LLC. Author of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism.

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