Students and reinforcers, it's an individualized thing

January 13, 2023

Feeding the Fish | 1.13.23

The fish in the tank are numerous. They are guppies and there are new babies every day it seems. So when students work for visiting the fish, there are a lot of fish to visit with.

“S” picked seeing the fish today, at the end of her great day, great week. She fed them and also added shells and rocks to the tank. “S” loves the colors on the tails of the male guppies, and most of all the babies. “Ohhh the babies,” she exclaimed, smiling widely.

Horsie, please? 1.27.2022

When a child learns to use communication to get what he or she wants, it’s a breakthrough. Rather than engaging in behaviors that are less socially appropriate, the child gradually learns to ask for the item or action. The process of that – learning how to communicate – can be long and arduous, but it is well worth the journey. And, that journey is showered with reinforcement all along the way, so that the child makes the connection and understands that just asking is a good thing, and more reinforcing than the mal behavior.

Here’s “B,” an adorable Room 6 student who has developed an understanding of the concept of communication and a growing ability to utilize it to meet her needs and wants. When she recently asked Ms. Taylor for “horsie please,” Taylor was quick to honor her verbal request with a ride. This is a great example of immediate reinforcement for the desired behavior.

She was so appreciative she gave T a peck on the cheek, a sign of affection and another aspect of the work here at Crossroads.

12.28.2021 Working for Fish

Very often students here choose the fish as their reinforcer for good work. They are “working for” the fish. Here are a couple of  Room 5 youngsters visiting the fish with glee! Great work, M & K!

8.19.2021 Fishing for Fun

On a walk to deliver goodies to the offices with her teacher, “J” spotted the fish tank along the way, and beckoned her teacher to stop and look. It turns out that fish are highly interesting to J and she was willing to participate in using her words to ask for them, label them, and say hi and bye to the people she met, in order to watch them. The smile is just beautiful!


7.29.2021 The Sky’s the Limit

When it comes to repeating a wanted action or behavior, how the behavior is reinforced is exceptionally important. The child will learn to do something again largely based upon what comes right after their behavior or action. Reinforcers are chosen to increase a wanted behavior, (while punishments are meant to decrease an unwanted behavior).  When we reinforce a student after they’ve performed a skill or acted (or refrained from acting) a certain way, we are intentionally increasing the behavior. As defined by ” Reinforcement ” refers to any consequence that increases the likelihood of a particular behavioral response; ” punishment ” refers to a consequence that decreases the likelihood of this response.

This is the essence of the principles of operant conditioning, and while there’s so much more to it, it can suffice for our purposes here of sharing the amazing progress of our students, to share with you some of the activities and interactions that are strong reinforcers for our students. Take a peek at the learners in Room 8.

1.20.2021 “I want fish, please.”

It’s a beautiful thing to hear when a child is able to put into words what they want! And to be able to then present this as a choice for what they can work for or access during their day. When “K” from Room 13 visited the fish today with Ms. Victoria, she used her iPad to make this request and was delighted to be able to feed the fish and watch them eat what she’d provided them.

11.19.2020 When running is on the menu.

Reinforcers don’t have to be tangible things. In fact, at Crossroads, therapists and teachers work hard to find preferred activities and social interactions to reinforce students with for their accuracy and effort.

Here we see Room 14’s “H” who loves to run. When he has completed a certain time period of doing his work well, he gets to run with the team member who is working with him at that point. You can see from his facial expression how much he enjoys this!

1.9.2020  When it comes to finding new reinforcers for students, going the extra mile, or at least stairway, is worth its weight in gold.

This little guy discovered a new interest in fish today, and he earned looking at them for doing great work with his teacher. Not only that, but he was able to happily practice using his words in a natural way. Awesome work!

8/1/2019 – Reinforcement comes in many forms!

If you’ve been in the building here at Crossroads, you’ve probably heard educators asking students what they want to work for. Or you’ve noticed a teacher or therapist reminding a student, “first work” (or the task that is wanted), “then” (the next activity or chosen reinforcer.)

Parents, teachers, baby sitters and grandparents alike enjoy providing rewards – for good working, for behaving in the grocery store, for playing quietly so dinner can be made – but sometimes we don’t think about why and how positive reinforcement works so well to increase desired behaviors and skills.

Because Crossroads Center for Children is an ABA (applied behavior analysis) school, positive reinforcement is a daily practice. Keep in mind that reinforcer choices and reinforcement schedules are always individualized. Data analysis ensures that the reinforcement programs are creating the changes that are wanted.

Here are some current positive reinforcement scenarios. Maybe they’ll shed some light on the subject.

Scenario 1.

Following a fire drill, where everyone clears the building and then returns given the all clear, one child, like many others, had some trouble with the transition back to the classroom. This boy was showing clear signs that he absolutely did not want to go up the stairs to get back to his classroom.  The stairs can be understandably difficult. However, part of his “work” is to practice using the stairs during his day so that he’ll grow stronger, not to use the elevator which requires significantly less physical activity. Notably, it would have been far easier for his teacher to give in and take the elevator, but she didn’t. She knew that she needed to do the right thing for her student to make the progress he needs. So she talked with him.

She  talked and asked him what he was going to choose for some free time once he got up to the classroom. She didn’t say “if” he got up to the classroom, but “when” he got to it. The language she picked was great because this student knew that she wasn’t going to give up on him and it also got him thinking about what he could pick to do at the top. He was set up for success, and he took a step up.

He told her he liked the radio, so she asked him to tell her about his favorite channels. K-Love is his favorite favorite, he said, and he also named some others. Then he listed many that he dislikes greatly. Gently, with steps proceeding upwards, the teacher guided the conversation back to the one he likes the most. She asked him if he’d choose to listen to K-Love since it’s his favorite, or one of the others, or would he listen to a few since he’d have some free time? 

Well. You’d think he’d hit the jackpot. He began to talk about listening to K-Love on the iPad. He asked if he could also have his picture get taken while he listened to his music. Could he sit by the window too?

At this point he’d rounded the stair’s landing and was close to the top. She assured him that once he was settled with the iPad, his picture would  happily be taken, and before you know it he was in the room settled with the iPad, sitting by the window, happy as can be.

It could have been a whole different story, but kids like to know what the reward is at the end of the hard work. Don’t most of us?

Scenario 2.

As we all know, sitting at a desk and doing work, as is required in elementary schools across the nation, can be difficult for many children (and adults) and it’s definitely not this student’s favorite thing to do.  He’d much rather build elaborate scenes and create imaginative places with chairs and movie covers, books and other furnishings found in his school environment.

This child’s creativity is amazing, but he needs to work on academic skills too. Working at a desk is something that he’s been “growing” a little at a time. So once he’s accomplished a predetermined amount of time, or number of questions, his teacher says “great job, time to earn”, and off he goes to his choice of activity at this time.

At this time it is selecting pieces for a Batman castle, at another it is finding pictures of characters to add to a movie audience. It works well because he does his work with his teacher knowing he will access what is important to him.

Scenario 3.

Another favorite activity reinforcer is feeding the fish, so for this student, sometimes at the end of his session, when his school work is done, he asks to feed the fish.

He takes the little spoon, gets just a little food so they don’t get sick, and sprinkles it into the tank. He loves watching them eat and gets really excited to see how he has provided for each and every fish in the tank. When asked, he’ll screw the top back on the food can, put it away, and with a reminder that he can choose to work for the fish next time, he happily goes back to his classroom with his teacher to transition to his next session.

Here’s the thing: each student’s choices are meaningful and personal. The student who loves feeding the fish might not enjoy listening to music or playing with a Batman castle. It is something special about our teachers and therapists that they strive so very diligently to accommodate each child’s individualized interests as much as they do. Reinforcers have to be reinforcing to be effective in forming awesome behaviors. What’s reinforcing is such an individual and personally unique thing, sometimes changing frequently and sometimes unexpected.  It’s just one of the ways the programs at Crossroads are highly individualized, but it’s one of the ones that is most essential, and it’s why our Wish List is always being updated, and why teachers and therapists are always finding new, exciting items and activities to offer their students. Some children love hugs, some love specific toys. Some love bubbles, others like time alone. Everyone is different. Individual.

What do YOU find reinforcing? What do you do for yourself after work say, or at the end of a long project? Do you picture it? For example, perhaps you think during a long day, “I can’t wait to relax and watch Netflix tonight after the kids go to sleep?” or “I’m going outside to take a nice walk in the sunshine, just as soon as I finish this memo.” If so, you are practicing reinforcement for yourself! Before you know it, your memo is written, the kids have had their baths and you’ve done the hard work so that you’re ready for that walk, movie, or treat.

That’s how it is for the kids, too! Sometimes they just need a little more help to look ahead that way!


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