(Take a look at this video from Autismspeaks.org for information and real life examples of positive reinforcement).
“When you finish all of your vegetables you can get your dessert.” What parent hasn’t used this line? This is a simple example of using positive reinforcement. Having a completion of a task, such as finishing vegetables, gets a desired item, in this case dessert.
Reinforcement comes after a behavior to increase or decrease the chances of the behavior happening again. There are two types of reinforcement negative reinforcement, which is when a stimulus is removed or avoided to encourage a behavior and positive reinforcement, which we will talk about today.
Positive reinforcement uses a desired or motivating stimulus after a targeted behavior to make it more likely that a behavior will occur. Adults and children use reinforcement to learn new skills or to complete tasks or activities that are challenging. As adult you go to work to get paid. Maybe as a parent you reward yourself with a favorite show after you get through the nighttime routine and cleanup from the day.
Positive reinforcement is especially helpful for individuals with an autism diagnosis. With autism spectrum disorder, many times, certain tasks such as getting dressed, completing homework, or even going in for a routine checkup can be frustrating and challenging. Pairing a highly motivating stimulus with an otherwise frustrating task can create a more positive experience. It also shows your child you are understanding that these situations or activities are hard for them and are trying to help them focus on something positive by having a reinforcer available.
When choosing reinforcers, you want to find incentives that your child likes so much they are willing to do work for them. It does not always have to be a tangible item, like food or a toy. It can be taking a moment on a swing or running to the end of a hallway and back. If it is exciting and enjoyable for your child try it out. A lot of the time watching what your child does in their free time is an easy way to find a good reinforcer to use.
Once you have found motivating items or stimuli it is a good idea to try and only use them when you want to work through challenging tasks. This makes the incentive more desired. Also, give your child the option to choose which reinforcer they would like to work for. You may think you know what they want but giving them the option to choose puts them in control of what is most reinforcing for them in the moment.
Visual support, such as through a first/ then boards, are a great way to communicate the task you are presenting and the reinforcement your child will get if the task is completed. This also allows your child to see and look back on, if necessary, what they are working for. It is always a good idea to try and set your child up for success in completing the activity, this will help increase the chances of them getting the reinforcer, which will in turn increase the likelihood of the targeted behavior occurring again.
Encourage your child throughout the task and give lots of praise. When your child completes the activity make sure to give them their reinforcer immediately, this way they understand why they have earned it.
Take a look at the video from Autismspeaks.org for more information and examples on positive reinforcement.