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The Power of Reinforcement


This article was contributed by Leica Anzaldo, Training Manager for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

As I was sitting in the classroom today watching a child I work with tear up his fifth math worksheet, my brain immediately went into functional assessment mode. This was an obvious one: escape. But why was he trying to escape an activity that he already had in his skill repertoire? This kid hates doing independent work. Even when he has the skills and can perform the task, the request to him is daunting, stressful, and “horrible.” What happens when you tear up your work? You escape the task, even if it is only for a few moments. How do adults usually respond when a student tears up work? They ask questions about why the student is doing that or simply say “don’t do that,” not answering any of the questions the child has in his mind: How much do I have to do? When are you going to check in with me? What do I do if I can’t figure it out? Who is going to help me? What is the payoff for me doing this in the first place? Let’s first think about what core skills this child may need to work on: responding to instruction, functional communication, and tolerating delay of reinforcement.

If a child or adult is demonstrating a negative behavior on a regular basis, that behavior is most likely being reinforced. In the example above, the reinforcement was that he got to escape the work. What socially appropriate behavior could I teach instead that would result in the same reinforcement? In other words, how could I teach him a better way to briefly escape the work? And then in time, how could I teach him – when escape is not an option – how to tolerate a delay in reinforcement? The goal here is for this child to let me – and later his teacher – know when he doesn’t feel like he can do something and needs a break; this would be functional communication. Being able to ask for a break and having that request honored is extremely powerful. Being able to wait and tolerate non-preferred activities or delays in reinforcement is extremely important in all settings. So, we are working on three goals in this situation: increasing use of functional communication (asking for a break); increasing time on task (moving toward task completion); and tolerating delays in reinforcement.

To teach this skill, we needed to first set up activities that would evoke escape behaviors. Sounds crazy, but how else would we have multiple opportunities to teach the response we want? For this child, it meant presenting him with activities that are less preferred, such as worksheets and writing tasks, and focusing just on the functional communication target. Research shows that children and adults who can effectively use functional communication demonstrate fewer negative behaviors. Keep in mind, functional communication does not have to be verbal but rather a communication method that works for the person: gestures, visual, tablet, object, etc.

The independent work we presented was not complex, but rather work that we knew he had the skills to complete. Before beginning the activity, he was verbally/visually shown two ways he could let us know he wanted a break, staff modeled them, and he practiced them: 1. Ask “can I have a break?” or 2. Put the work in his folder labeled “break.” Target 1 was harder but more desirable, so it triggered a higher level of reinforcement: a break and access to his small firetruck and action figures for one minute. Target 2 was a bit easier for him because it did not involve using language, so the reinforcement was milder: he had the task removed for one minute. This strategy was included in every trial with reinforcement being timely and consistently applied. Any attempt to tear up the activity was blocked, the activity was removed, and no reinforcement was delivered. The student was then presented with an alternative activity that did not have a history of producing negative behaviors but was not highly preferred for up to three minutes before the less preferred activity was presented again. After several sessions, the child was consistently requesting breaks and not demonstrating negative escape behaviors. It should be noted that he did require some guidance during the work itself, and an adult was always accessible.

This child was using functional communication at the desired rate, so at this point, we began procedures to delay reinforcement. Before beginning these procedures, we practiced how to respond when you can’t get your break. The staff first modeled how to respond, then role-played with the child. For example, when you ask for your break and your teacher says “do two more problems,” take a deep breath, look at her, and say “okay.” Every time the child did this during role play, social reinforcement was delivered. This was then added to the trial with the delay being systematically expanded from one additional problem or sentence, to two, to three, etc. We are currently at a two-problem delay, and the child is tolerating this (as measured by no additional escape behavior being demonstrated and the child restarts work) about 50% of the time.

We are well on our way to success, and I am excited to see the long-term impact of his learning. The use of functional language and ability to tolerate a delay in reinforcement can get him better results. These skills can and will be generalized to other activities, environments, and people. I hope that you will consider how these procedures could apply to a behavior problem you are facing and am interested to hear your experiences.

Leica Anzaldo can be contacted at 704-894-9678, ext. 1603, or lanzaldo@autismsociety-nc.org. ASNC’s Clinical and Training Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential, and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to parents and professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and enhancing social understanding in individuals with autism.

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