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5 Lifehacks for the Parent New to ABA Therapy, Part 2: Know your Reinforcers

Understanding how to effectively use Reinforcement can be the defining point in effect ABA therapy.

Reinforcement makes behavior occur more often, and always affects future behavior. When behavior is followed by reinforcement there will be an increased future frequency of behavior. Reinforcement changes what comes after the behavior (consequence) and what comes before the behavior (antecedent). Positive Reinforcement is the most significant and broadly used concept in ABA. Example: Amy hits the button on her doll because it makes a noise. Due to the desirable effect of the doll making a noise, Amy’s behavior of hitting the button has now been reinforced. Reinforcement depends on motivation (MO), if there is no motivation there is no reinforcement. Reinforcement is effective when it is delivered following a desirable behavior.

Reinforcers are classified into 5 types of positive reinforcers:

  1. Edibles- Food, pieces of food

  2. Activities- Preferred games, outings

  3. Tangibles- Actual physical rewards such as; stickers, iPad

  4. Social- High fives, social praise (“Good job”, “Great work”, etc)

  5. Sensory- Toys and items that stimulate the child

Remember: If there is no Motivation, there is no reinforcement.

The most important part of reinforcement is determining what reinforcer will motivate the child or adult. What will the child work for that will increase the behavior we are wanting to see? Reinforcers are like a golden ticket! This is what our child wants to work for, so remember to not allow access to this reinforcer 24/7, because that will only take away the value of this golden ticket. Reinforcers are decided upon by using what we call preference assessments. With these preference assessments we provide an array of items, objects, food, etc . From these preference assessments the child’s highest/most wanted reinforcer is decided, and a hierarchy is developed. The 3 types of preference assessments are Ask, Free Operant Observations, and Trial-Based Methods.

Ask Preference Assessments focus on these 3 strategies

  • Ask the target person (Use open ended questions to rank objects on a list.)

  • Ask significant others

  • Offer a pre-task choice: Ex. “What do you want to earn after you brush your teeth?

Free Operant observation focuses on these 2 strategies

  • Contrived Free-Operant Observation: Fills the setting with a variety of items/objects that the child may like to see what they select.

  • Naturalistic Free-Operant Observation: This is run within the natural environment, and the observer will record what the child interacts with within their setting.

Paired Stimulus: Presenting 2 stimuli (objects/items), observer will record which of the 2 stimuli the child chooses and will continue to provide stimuli until a ranking is created.

  • Multiple Stimulus: Simultaneous presentation of 3 or more stimuli. The observer will record their findings and create a ranking.

  • Single Stimulus: Stimuli are presented 1 at a time in random order and the observer will record their findings and create a ranking.

Within ABA you will notice that reinforcers are changed up frequently so that our student’s do not become satiated (bored) of being given the same reinforcer every day. To ensure that satiation does not occur, we run preference assessments daily. Along with the term satiated, we also refer to the ‘deprivation’ which is withholding a reinforcer with the goal of increasing relevant learning and performance. At times, and depending upon the child, deprivation may be appropriate to implement.

Something to remember: We as parents and adults don’t want to receive the same reinforcer every day so why should our child or adult? Remember to praise your student when they are engaging in appropriate behavior! It can be very easy to only see the negative behavior, so remember to retrain your brain, breathe, and praise!


Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E. Heward, William L.. (2007) Applied behavior analysis /Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall, Meadows, T. (1970, January 01). FREE ABA Resources!! Retrieved January 08, 2018, from



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