Students and reinforcers, it's an individualized thing

August 01, 2018

Reinforcement comes in many forms!

If you’ve been in the building here at Crossroads, you’ve probably heard staff members asking students what they want to work for, or reminding them that “first work (or the task that is wanted), then (the next activity or chosen reinforcer.)”

Parents, teachers, baby sitters and grandparents alike like to provide 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. Keeping in mind that reinforcer choices and reinforcement schedules are ALWAYS individualized with data analysis to ensure 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.

A student came in from our school’s fire drill the other day. He showed signs that he absolutely did not want to go up the stairs to get back to his classroom. Since he uses a piece of equipment to assist mobility, the stairs can be understandably difficult. However, part of his “work” is to use the stairs during his day so that he’ll grow stronger. Sure, it might have been easier for his teacher to let him avoid the hard part and take the elevator, but 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 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, but he also named some others, and one that he dislikes greatly. 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?

That was great because he began to talk about listening to K-Love on the iPad and asked if he could also have his picture get taken when he got there. 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, snuggling up to his teacher, 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 movie theatres with chairs and pictures of audience members he’s printed out and taped to the chairs. His creativity is amazing, but he needs to work on academic skills too, and working at a desk is something that he can “grow” 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 the day, when his classroom job 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 pack up for the day.

The thing is this: 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 that they try so very hard 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.

Here are some of the kids during reinforcement times!


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!

Thanks for reading!


Read more about programming essentials at Crossroads:

Discrete trial training works by making the skill more manageable for the child

How Speech and Language Therapists improve communication for their students

Building successful lives, one play activity at a time

Individual attention, patience and consistency… just what kids need.Moving it during the school day!