Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reinforcement in ABA Programs for Chlidren with Autism

Why do you continue to play with your kids, read your favorite magazines, make your family's best-loved meals, and talk about cherished memories with old friends? It's really a straightforward answer - because it makes you feel good. As much as we like to tout our "smartest primate" status, human beings are really quite simple creatures. We are much more likely to continue doing something that we find enjoyable than something that doesn't bring any emotional or monetary payback. Think about this. If someone gave you the choice of working 40 hours per week versus 20 hours per week for the same pay, what would you choose? Unless you are a workaholic with no hobbies or family (or you have a job that satisfies you more than all of these things combined), you are far more likely to choose the 20 hour option. Kids are no different. When they engage in an activity that brings them inherent joy or pride, they are likely to continue engaging in that activity.

However, life does not always provide us with fun, preferred choices. We all have responsibilities, whether it's completing a project at work, dealing with four loads of laundry, or practicing our times tables. As Denzel Washington says, "You do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do." Who knew he was a behavior analyst at heart? As our clients have heard us say multiple times, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is not a method that is employed exclusively in an instructional setting. Rather, it is a waking hours approach. While this philosophy applies to many different behaviors and circumstances, this post will focus on the use of reinforcement.

Reinforcement is the most important skill for parents and instructors to learn. It is the “gas” that makes the program go. Consistently implementing effective reinforcement will maximize your child’s rate of acquisition of new skills and help to reduce behaviors that interfere with learning (e.g., poor eye contact, inattention and gazing, attempts to escape, verbal protests, tantrums). Unfortunately, it is the hardest component for parents and instructors to consistently implement over time. Maintaining effective reinforcement requires effort. Each individual team member must constantly assess the effectiveness of rewards that are used, change up the rewards offered, vary the presentation when using the same reward multiple times, and continue to come up with new ideas daily.

What are the goals of reinforcement?

➢ To make learning fun.
➢ To increase/maintain the child’s motivation to learn.
➢ To increase/maintain the child’s effort (i.e., a high rate of quality responses)
➢ To decrease undesirable behaviors that interfere with learning and functioning appropriately.

While these goals seem logical, you may wonder how to actually implement effective reinforcement. Here are a few guidelines:

➢ Provide rewards immediately following the correct response or desired behavior. This makes it clear to the child what behavior is being reinforced.

➢ Select rewards based on the individual preferences of the child. While some children may enjoy blowing bubbles, other children may find the texture of the bubble liquid aversive.

➢ Vary the type of reward offered from trial-to-trial to prevent satiation: Tickles, chair rides, bubbles, songs, reading a favorite book- don’t repeat the same reinforcer continuously. If someone tickled you each time you did something correctly, you'd probably feel an urge to punish them in some way.

➢ Make the presentation of the reward part of the reinforcement. A frequent mistake is just handing the child a toy and expecting the child to figure out how to make it fun. It is the instructor’s job to exert mental and physical energy trying to come up with different ways to make these items enjoyable to the child.

➢ When teaching new skills, use the procedure of Differential Reinforcement – High quality responses receive high quality reinforcement, and low quality responses receive low quality reinforcement. Typically, we rate rewards on a scale of 1-10 (ten being the highest value and 1 being the lowest value to the child). The child’s best consistent response should consistently earn a level 10 reward. When the child’s response is lower than their best consistent ability (e.g., Child requires a partial prompt and their best consistent response is an independent one), the instructor should decrease the value of the reinforcement proportionately (e.g., drop from a level 10 to a level 7).

➢ Instructors and parents should proactively come up with new reinforcers. If the child is unmotivated, he/she is less likely to complete the task. The child is not “bored” with the programs, but with the reinforcement.

➢ Evaluate the effectiveness of all reinforcers implemented, and make adjustments accordingly. Remember this rule: You will not know if something is reinforcing until after you see the child's reaction. Were they engaged by the reinforcer? Are they looking for it to continue?

➢ To avoid confusing the child, rewards for correct responses should be easily distinguishable from corrective feedback for incorrect responses. For example, do not give an informational "no" in a playful voice when the child responds incorrectly. By the same token, you should not give verbal praise with a lackluster tone of voice.

Assessing the effectiveness:
Make sure what you offered for reinforcement matches the quality earned. If you have a hard time finding rewards that the child is motivated to work for, assess what occurs between learning sittings at the table. Often, the problem is that the child is receiving higher rewards for "free" during structured play time. When faced with this situation, instructors should direct the child to less preferred activities/toys/food and save the more preferred activities/toys/food for rewards at the table.

For a comprehensive list of reinforcers and our "Reinforcer of the Week", please head to our website.

We would love to hear your ideas on reinforcers that have worked for your child or children you worked with. Please feel free to leave a comment under this post.

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