I will never forget the day that I was working with a non-verbal student with autism and I was given a lesson in positive reinforcement. My training as an ABA Therapist was going well and was entering its sixth month. Stating that my student was non-verbal is not completely accurate; he did have a lexicon of approximately 15-20 words. These words were what we where working on when his progress was being evaluated by a senior staff member. What we were working on in particular was his articulation of these words and an improvement in his pronunciation of them. I was instructed to model the word and he would repeat it. I would then evaluate his response and determine the degree to which he had successfully articulated it. This was very challenging for my student and his performance data showed that progress was not made enough. Like all of the Therapists in my class I was determined to help him succeed. I learned how to model the words correctly and sat-in on previous lessons to be able to accurately determine what constituted a correct response. And yet … his data indicated that there was not sufficient progress being made.

It was at this point that the senior staff member was called in. Well, this of course added another level of pressure and I really did my best to help the student verbalize these words. I was well aware of the very important concept that it is absolutely the teacher's responsibility to help the student succeed. Test results and student data reflect the teacher not the student. With the senior staff members (yes, now there were two!) To one side and the student and myself 'knee-to-knee' I modeled the word … the response was not correct. I immediately looked away for three seconds (the current response cost) and tried again. There was no change in his response. At this point, one of the senior staff members stepped in and got down to the student's level and said, “This is hard, is not it?” That was the turning point for me and the time at which I felt that I really understood the concept of positive reinforcement. After this trial, they suggested several ways to change the teaching methodologies and adjust the reinforcement, but it was that one statement that caught my attention the most. I truly realized, then, that although I was delivering reinforcement properly when a student answered correctly or behaved appropriately; I did not really appreciate just how difficult this skill must have been for the student. I was very aware of my responsibilities and how to adjust my level of compliance and the concept of negative vs.. positive reinforcement. Yet, these concepts are difficult to institute if you do not really comprehend how challenging these skills, which many of us take for granted, really are for our students.

The concept of positive reinforcement is built on the basis of compassion and understanding. At any given time, an individual is most likely doing something which you can reinforce. My student in the example above was trying really hard to answer correctly. Without the presence of this attempt, there is no chance that the student can make progress in the future. Instead of internalizing incorrect responses and sometimes becoming frustrated, teachers can reinvigorate a student's approximations and attempts at correct responses. Although it is important for the student to answer correctly, sometimes it is more important to have the student be successful in the long run. Teachers can reinvigorate a student for trying, or sitting nicely. If the student is learning a very challenging skill, teachers can 'switch gears' and quickly review a less challenging activity to allow them to be reinforced for less difficult responses. Attention is a driving force behind many students' behavior and if a teacher overlooks their positive behavior for too long, they may decide to give appropriate behavior a try.

Shaping behavior through positive reinforcement becomes more and more natural the more that you practice it. At first, I was amazed at the level of compliance being delivered to the students in my class. It appeared like every other minute they were being given something or congratulated or tickled. I soon realized how powerful it was when this level was (temporarily) reduced when the student displayed inappropriate behavior like aggression or self injurious behaviors for example. I began to notice that this response to the student'sappropriate behavior was almost the mirror opposite of a typical reaction to challenging behavior. Teachers' attention levels were being reduced when a student acted inappropriately as opposed to increased. This was truly a reversal of long-held doctrines for myself and it opposed most of my experience in the public and private school system. Yet … it seemed to work! Special education professionals understand that student's instructional material and reinforcement schedules have to be individualized. Ultimately, an individual's behavior dictates how much or how little reinforcement is appropriate for them. Instructors should always consider what behavior they are seeking to increase as opposed to decrease. In other words, if a student is constantly standing-up and walking around inappropriately, the teacher should look to reinstate his sitting nicely. Some may say, “Yes, but he is invited to sit during class so why should I reinforce that!” It seems that in our society we have been conditioned to only reward outstanding behavior, above and beyond the expectations of authority. Sometimes, this is appropriate but remember that the student's behavior should dictate the level of reinforcement- not your expectations of the student.

Which brings us to the question of, “What should I use to reinvigorate my student's behavior?” and “What is an appropriate amount to use?” I, personally, enjoy M & Ms and – if you offered me some (hint, hint) – I would most likely accept them and strike up a conversation with you about the wonderful variety of these tasty treats! Therefore, are M & Ms reinforcing for me? Maybe. The only way you can determine if something is reinforcing is if the behavior we are seeking to increase actually increases, after the introduction of it. I failed to mention that I am also keen on all-you-can-eat buffets. If you caught me right after one of these buffet outings I can assure you that M & Ms would not be high on my list of reinforcers! Therefore, what is reinforcing is always changing, because we are all complicated and changing individuals. As to the amount of, or appropriate nature of the reinforcement – this also needs to be individualized. My early work with students with autism involved children and young adults ranged from about 9 to 16 years old. Even in this age range there is a large discrepancy in the nature of the reinforcement being delivered. Exceptional situations excluded, the nature of the reinforcement should be relative to and reflect the age of the student. There are many obvious reasons why this is so but you have to realize that every student's reinforcement schedule has had to be systematically adjusted as the student grew older. At the same time, he / she is entering into adulthood and continuing to be challenged with daily social and scholastic endeavors. Toddlers and younger children, generally, require a completely different set of reinforcement techniques which are much more direct and rapid fire in nature. Ultimately, teachers benefit from forming a history of compliance with a student which allows them to be more successful at making these decisions based on past experiences with the student.

Students are not the only ones receiving reinforcement for certain behaviors in a learning environment, either. Teachers and parents need to be keenly aware of the fact that their behavior can also be shaped by a student's responses. Take, for example, a student who is working on brushing his teeth independently. This particular skill is challenging for the student and the teacher has found that when they squeeze the toothpaste up to the top of the tube before he begins, it helps him to be successful. Of course, tooth brushing is absolutely an independent activity which should not require any assistance. If the practice of completing this rather crucial step is provided for too long, the student may become dependent on this prompt as opposed to doing it independently. At the same time, it can be very reinforcing for the teacher to do this because it helps him to be successful and is a direct way to produce results. This situation is not always as apparent and easily discernible. Therefore, parents and teachers should always be asking themselves if their current course of action is based on what is best for the student or what is most reinforcing for them at that particular point in time. Understanding and implementing concepts regarding positive reinforcement often requires a shift in 'common knowledge' concerning education and motivation. Not surprisingly, the more success you encounter with these concepts the more you will want to use them. So then, using positive reinforcement is positively reinforcing!