Use These 4 Proven Reinforcement Tips and Watch Your Child Soar, by Elna Cain

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autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcement


Introducing Elna Cain

Today’s guest post comes to us courtesy of Elna Cain. Elna is a freelance writer who lives in Northern Canada with her husband and twin children. She is a former Special Education Assistant (SEA) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist for children with autism.

Elna’s Background in Autism

As a Special Education Assistant (SEA) and ABA Instructor for over 10 years, I’ve witnessed many breakthroughs in a child’s success to learning.

I’ve helped children learn how to play with their peers, to wait patiently in line, to ride a bike and even how to enjoy eating pizza. Many, if not all, of those successes were attributed to effective reinforcement.

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is the addition or removal of a stimulus in order to increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

In other words, do you know the ding ding ding noise you hear when you open your car door? That annoying sound is a stimulus that will increase your likelihood of putting on your seatbelt.

Car companies utilize negative reinforcement (putting on your seatbelt to stop the noise) as a way to increase seat belt wearing.

Similarly, when a teacher rewards a student for being quiet when they are working on a worksheet, he or she is using positive reinforcement, which will increase the likelihood of that student continuing being quiet.

Effective Reinforcement

As children with autism often are developmentally delayed, it is a challenge to teach them all the necessary skills they lack in order for them to catch up with their peers. However, when you effectively reinforce a child’s behavior, you can ensure that they will maximize their learning potential.

Effective reinforcement:

  • Motivates the child to learn new things: Once you find the hook, what the child will work for, plan to use it to help them learn. It can be as simple as using a computer game, or more challenging as using a specific train in a certain way. Whatever it is, once you find what they love, use it to motivate them to follow your instructions.

How do you find the hook?

  • By seeing what the child is motivated at that particular moment. If a child is interested in the movie  Kung-Fu Panda, a therapist could use this to reinforce the child.
  • Introduces socialization: Many social games that are fun for children are also reinforcing for special needs children. Who doesn’t like to wake up a snoring bear? Or to play chase? By using these games, you can elicit play phrases like “Let’s play …,” “Let’s do it again,” “Can I have a turn?” It also teaches important social rules like waiting your turn and trying not to be a sore loser.

So what can parents, teachers, therapists and other professionals do to help children with special needs increase their learning? Try out these 4 easy-to-do reinforcing tips!

4 Reinforcing Tips to Maximize Your Child’s Learning

  1. Make your reinforcement individualized

Let’s say a child you are working with likes when you pretend to be the tickle monster and wants you to chase him or her around the room until you catch them.  You notice that when you use this type of reinforcement the child is more likely to do what you asked them to do, such as print their name.

You decide to use the tickle monster trick on another child you work with but quickly learn they do not like physical touching. In order to individualize your reinforcement, you need to find another way to motivate them. Maybe this child likes when you are the chasing monster.

This sounds like a no brainer, but many new therapists who work with special needs children often think universally, that everyone likes bubbles and tickles, and may not take into account any sensory issues the child might have.

As well, many new therapists learn how to use different reinforcement toys or games from more senior therapists and use those tricks when they work with a child. This is fine and is often encouraged as a way to build up confidence in new instructors, but it can backfire and cause satiation.

Satiation occurs when you overuse a particular reinforcement causing it to lose its desirability for the child.

If you want your child to learn from you, it’s best that you discover your personal arsenal of fun.

  1. Brand yourself as Disneyland

When I was doing home ABA therapy, I made it my mission to be highly enthusiastic, a ball of energy and in essence, Disneyland. Why?

I wanted to pair myself with therapy. If I am in the room, you know you’ll have a good time with me, especially when you follow my instructions. That is why a parent might notice their child prefers a certain therapist. They have something special that no other therapist has.

Branding yourself this way takes time and practice, but you’ll see that your efforts have worked when the child implicitly follows what you say. This effectively teaches a child that good things occur when you follow the rules.

  1. Describe the skill when you provide reinforcement

It’s important when you deliver reinforcement to a child, to label what they did correctly. This is called an expressive follow-up and it occurs right after you give verbal praise.

Why is this important?

This helps your child with understanding language. Repeatedly saying, “Good job!” or “Way to go Idaho!” are all good and reinforcing, but try adding the follow-up, “Good job tying your shoes!” or “Way to go Idaho! You clapped your hands!” to alert them why they are getting praised. This often helps a child with autism receptively understand language that is directed towards him or her.

Receptive understanding is the act of understanding what is being said and this is a huge deficit for many learners on the spectrum. Therefore, using an expressive follow-up with reinforcement could help increase the rate of learning receptive language in some children.

  1. Make your reinforcement contingent on their response

In ABA therapy, feedback is immediately given after the child has responded. If your child sat in the chair when you asked, you immediately reinforce that behavior. The time between your child’s response and the deliverance of reinforcement is short.

If reinforcement is delayed, you run the risk of inadvertently reinforcing another behavior that may be undesirable. For instance, you ask your child to sit and he sits down, but also begins to hand flap. You acknowledge that he or she sat and reinforce that behavior. However, you not only praised your child for sitting, but you praised him or her to sit and flap their hands.

This tip does sound easy to do, but children with autism may engage in Self-Stimulatory Behavior (often referred as stims) or engage in other stereotypic movements. This may make it difficult to deliver your reinforcement contingent on a correct response.

Anyone can use reinforcement to teach new behaviors and maintain old behaviors. However, the presentation and delivery of that reinforcement could ultimately help your child soar through his ABA program.

Now that you learned these proven tips for reinforcement, try them out next time with your child with autism.

Let me know via my contact link below if you have any more tips for effectively delivering reinforcement.

Thank you Elna for this wonderful article

Elna Cain is a freelance writer who lives in Northern Canada with her husband and twin children. She is a former Special Education Assistant (SEA) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist for children with autism. She has found inspiration, patience and admiration in her work with children of all abilities. When she isn’t writing you can find her chasing after her rambunctious twins. Feel free to contact Elna Cain for her freelance writing services at Innovative Ink.



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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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