Students and reinforcers, it's an individualized thing

January 09, 2020

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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Thanks for reading! Read more about programming essentials at Crossroads:

Speech and Language Therapists help their students improve communication

Building successful lives, one play activity at a time

Prompting ProceduresSpeech and Language Therapists, addressing much more than speaking.