Written by: Stacey Ollivier, MS.Ed., BCBA, LBS

Reinforcement is a great strategy to use when building positive behavior and achieving skills! A reinforcer is simply a reward. Reinforcers are some item, activity, or event, that a person likes enough to work to earn it. Using reinforcers with children is especially effective since there are endless amounts of toys, activities, foods, and even monetary items we can use to gain their interest!

However, if not done carefully, we may find our reinforcement strategies aren’t working. Here are some helpful tips to make reinforcement successful:

  1. Make sure your reinforcer is…reinforcing!
    Use items, foods, toys, activities your child is interested in! They most likely will not work for something they don’t find appealing. Think about the toys, shows, activities, and foods your child gravitates toward.
  2. Eliminate access to the reinforcer at any other time.
    Let’s say you are using M&Ms as a reinforcer for using the potty. If your child can have M&Ms at any other time (for snack, after dinner) they aren’t going to find M&Ms motivating enough. But, if you restrict M&Ms only to when they use the potty, you have a better chance of the child being motivated!
  3. Make reinforcers varied.
    If you are using the same reinforcer for every task over and over, chances are progress will stall or regress. If a child gets M&Ms for using the potty, putting toys away, putting their dish in the sink, putting clothes away, etc., they are going to eventually get tired of M&Ms. Vary up the reinforcer you use for different tasks! Perhaps completion of homework means an hour of TV, cleaning up toys means a cookie after dinner, etc. As your child grows and their interests change, you will need to adapt and adjust your reinforcement system as well.
  4. Make sure you keep a supply.
    If your child holds up their end of the bargain and completes what you have asked, we need to be ready to deliver and hold up our end! So, if your child sits on the potty and we are out of M&Ms – we have a problem! When we are deciding what to use as a reinforcer, we need to be sure we are able to maintain supply. This may mean looking into financially reasonable options or things we can easily access.
  5. Praise, praise, praise!
    One of the best reinforcers is PRAISE! Praise is free, personal and builds more of a connection than just a tangible item or food. Always include praise when your child completes a task! Be specific when you are praising them, so they know exactly why they are getting reinforcement. For example, if a child puts their dish in the sink, instead of just saying “good job”, say “great work putting your dish in the sink!” The child knows they earned praise for specifically putting their dish in the sink. Also, make praise as immediate as possible. Praising a child you put their dish into the sink immediately carries more weight than praising them hours later or the next day.

Remember, any strategy to change behavior takes time. Trust the process and be consistent. You got this!