ABA Basics, Part 1: Positive Reinforcement

As part of this 4-part blog series, we are going to explore the basic tenets of Behavior Analysis: Reinforcement (Positive and Negative) and Punishment (Positive and Negative). As behavior analysts, we want to understand why certain behaviors may occur, and what consequences either maintain them or prevent them from occurring again. Understanding these principles gives us better insight into not only our child’s behavior, but also that of everyone around us (including ourselves).

Let’s begin! This blog, and the first in this series, will be on Positive Reinforcement, the principle we are all likely familiar with.

Positive reinforcement is often referred to as a reward or treat, and we ALL love receiving it!  In its most basic terms, it is defined as a stimulus which strengthens or increases the probability of a specific response. In other words, after a certain behavior occurs, something is added or given that increases the likelihood that this behavior will occur again! Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Your dog, Gus, really loves dog treats. You tell Gus to “sit”. He sits down, and you give him a dog treat. You have given him positive reinforcement for his sitting behavior! He is more likely to sit down when you say “sit” from now on.

You have been really overloaded at work lately, so your coworker steps in and helps you with a few projects. Since she has been so kind, you tell her, “Thanks for helping me out these past few weeks, I really appreciate what you’ve done!”, and she responds with a smile and a “Thank you!”. You have positively reinforced her behavior of helping you out, and she is more likely to do this again in the future!

But wait, is giving or adding something always positive reinforcement? Let’s look: 

Jake does not like physical affection very much. His mom noticed that he cleaned his room without being asked, and she is thrilled! She begins to tickle and hug him, because she wants to give him a reward for doing his chore, but Jake protests and tries to pull away.

Is Jake more likely to clean his room again in the future? Has he been given positive reinforcement? Since he does not like physical affection, and he was trying to escape his mom’s tickles and hugs, the answer is, “probably not”.  (The chances that he would clean his room again may have even decreased, in which case the affection acted as a punisher.)

It is important that you choose something that is truly reinforcing to the individual if you want his/her behavior to increase. What is reinforcing to someone can change from day to day, or even minute to minute. We have all encountered a child who loves a toy to death one day, but couldn’t care less about it the next day. As another example, food may be reinforcing to a hungry person, but not at all to someone who is full. Always consider whether or not the person actually wants to receive this reward or reinforcer at this time. This is a crucial part of positive reinforcement, because if something that isn’t currently reinforcing is given, it may become punishing instead (such as in poor Jake’s example above).

Positive reinforcement is probably the most commonly-used principle of behavior analysis, and it is a great and effective way to encourage appropriate behavior. It is a principle that is easy for everyone in the child’s life to enforce, and can be carried out across environments and settings. The drawbacks to using positive reinforcement are that the person may become dependent on the rewards or that they may lose motivation to perform the behaviors once the rewards are removed, but this can be easily anticipated and trained for, using fading techniques.

What are some items or activities that are reinforcing to your child? What are some behaviors that you would like your child to perform more often? Can you think of some examples of positive reinforcement from your personal or professional life?

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