top of page
  • Colin Maynard

“How do I get my kid to _”; – A Brief Introduction to Reinforcement

Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. If that sounds incredibly open ended that’s because it is! Anything can cause a behavior to increase. Reinforcement is extremely subjective.

One child might wear a new shirt to school and find that it’s his new favorite shirt because he got several comments on it! Another child could find that same level of attention uncomfortable and decide that is not a shirt he will wear again. The same response to the same behavior can reinforce one person and punish another.

To further illustrate how unpredictable reinforcement can be let’s look at an example of verbal discipline. Some children might be so intent on getting attention that it matters very little to them if it’s positive or negative attention. For instance, maybe a child is jumping on her bed despite being told it’s bedtime and that behavior will not be tolerated. If a parent comes down and gives her a stern “talking to”, or even shouts, about her unacceptable behavior, it’s possible this is reinforcing. If her motivation was mom and dad’s attention, not just the sensation of jumping on the bed, she has been reinforced.

If a parent comes down and gives her a stern “talking to”, or even shouts, about her unacceptable behavior, it’s possible this is reinforcing. If her motivation was mom and dad’s attention, not just the sensation of jumping on the bed, she has been reinforced.

Important elements of Reinforcement

Preference assessment

One of the first and most crucial elements of reinforcement is performing a preference assessment. As demonstrated previously, everyone will not have the same reinforcers. Many won’t even have the same reinforcers from day to day. A preference assessment allows caretakers to gauge interest in a reinforcer and ensure we are utilizing actual reinforcers and not simply something we assume they will enjoy.

There are many variations to preference assessments and methods you can take to apply one. The simplest and easiest to use is simply allowing a child to move around a room and take note of the things they gravitate to and engage with. Likewise, creating a simple field of 2-3 items on their desk could be used to gauge a student’s interest in various items.

You might be surprised by the results of your preference assessment. It’s not uncommon for reinforcers to be very out of the ordinary. It doesn’t matter the cost, scarcity, or features of a reinforcer if someone finds it reinforcing and is motivated by it, then use it!

Qualities of reinforcement

There are many pieces of the puzzle when it comes to effective reinforcement. Here are a few more qualities reinforcement should have:

Varied – Most people don’t enjoy the same reinforcers over and over, instead, they’d rather have some variety in the things they do. Preference assessments help us avoid this challenge.

Distinct – The best reinforcers are crystal clear about what they are reinforcing. We must be very distinct and descriptive in our language regarding behavior we want to see while ignoring behavior we want to decrease.

Immediate – Much like distinct, immediacy of our reinforcement ensures it’s clear to the child what we are reinforcing. The timing of reinforcement plays a heavy role in the child making the connection with their actions and ability to access reinforcement.


Another factor in reinforcement is hard to quantify but we like to call “The Awesomeness Factor”. The Awesomeness factor is the relation between seemingly trivial or invisible aspects of a reinforcer and how powerful it is. When a reinforcer is truly “awesome” it often combines several reinforcers into one.

An example of this is a student, that considers himself a “sneaker head”, receives a pair of knock-off Nikes. While excited for his new shoes, that reinforcement is somewhat lessened by the fact that he knows they are not legitimate. He has the tangible reinforcer of the shoes themselves but is less reinforced due to the associations he makes with the name brand item.

The same student would most likely find a new pair of the same shoes from the manufacturer to be more reinforcing and “Awesome”.

He might associate authentic Nikes with success, athletic skill, or wealth. He is now reinforced by both the tangible and by the way the shoes make him feel. Learning history can play a part as well. If the student associates Nikes with the memory of his first successful 3-pointer in a basketball game that can play a role in his relationship with the brand as well. The awesomeness factor is stronger with the second pair of shoes.

Some ideas for using reinforcement

Unique tangibles

Most kids don’t get to do a lot of their own shopping. Perhaps they can earn a special trip to the store to buy a new toy. Making it clear that this will be something they can access after doing all of their homework or completing all of the steps of their morning routine, or whatever the task might be. As long as they don’t have unlimited access and we know satiation will take some time and it can motivate them to complete whatever tasks we’re targeting.

High Quality Attention

Parents, teachers, therapists, caregivers…. Whatever title one might identify with we can all agree providing reinforcing attention to those in our care is hard! So much time and energy is spent on the necessities of life that more often than not everything that feels optional is eliminated. If there’s a need, a diaper change, cut finger, or hunger, we address it right away. That kind of attention is required so it is given. The optional attention is so hard to give because we’re always so tired.

Despite how tired we often feel we must make efforts to provide high quality attention. Most kids are highly reinforced by attention, especially from those they’re close to, and receiving it could prevent many of the obstacles that contribute to our exhaustion.

Attention as a reinforcer must be high quality! That means we are not engaging in the endless social media treadmill on our phone or half present while we distract ourselves with something else. High quality attention is engagement, conversation, and truly being present in the moment with them.

Escape Plan

Escape is a function of behavior and the motivation behind a lot of behaviors. There are times the most reinforcing thing we could allow our kids to do is nothing! Of course, there are times we can’t just withdraw a task, but feeling like every task we have on our list must be followed through with right away is not necessary. Sometimes, even a delay is reinforcement enough.

For many students, having a visual to work through until they can escape the task at hand can be instrumental for momentum. This can be a great time to bring out that token board or checklist so they can visually track their progress and know exactly when that break is coming.

Application There are hundreds of blogs, articles, and Pinterest boards to be found with ideas for visuals and reinforcement programs. With a firm understanding of some of the factors at work in reinforcement we can find what works best for our situation and make sure that the reinforcement applied is effective, ethical, and enthusiastic for better outcomes in our day to day!

Some Reinforcer and token board ideas Kenson Kids “I Can Do It” Reward and Responsibility Chart Kenson Kids Star Token Board Find out more about Keystone Achievements at


Recent Posts

See All

ADHD and Driving

The team at Shamieh Law invites you to review our guide to ADHD and driving to learn more. 


bottom of page