Staying on task and maintaining attention and focus is a struggle for many children, especially for youth diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or even autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Jessel, Ingvarsson, Whipple, and Kirk (2017) conducted a research study titled “Increasing on-task behavior of an adolescent with autism using momentary differential reinforcement.” This study was published in the Journal of Behavioral Interventions.

To summarize their study, here is an excerpt from their article:

“ABSTRACT: Compliance is often defined as the completion of a discrete task specified by a preceding instruction. However, compliance could also require the completion of a cluster of tasks, such as cleaning a room, getting ready for bed, or doing homework. We conducted this study to determine if a momentary differential reinforcement schedule would increase the on-task behavior of an adolescent with autism. The momentary differential reinforcement involved repeated momentary supervision checks, with tokens delivered for appropriate task engagement at that moment. The participant completed math worksheets and remained on task as the number of supervisions was faded from one every 30 s to one every 5 min.”

It is well known in the applied behavior analysis field that positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors is the best method for increasing appropriate behaviors. It is important to figure out how to individualize positive reinforcement for each child and each behavior. Sometimes this comes in the form of using shaping (reinforcing closer approximations to the end target behavior) and other times it involves simply reinforcing the desired behavior.

The authors of the mentioned study discuss some excellent points about compliance. For instance, they clarify the concept of compliance as including the following: providing an instruction, prompting the appropriate response, and reinforcing compliance (Jessel, et. al., 2017).

However, they raise the point about the challenges of compliance training including that it often requires constant supervision and that it may not be as effective with more complex tasks or tasks that require a larger series of behaviors.

The results of their study suggest that momentary differential reinforcement in the form of momentary supervision checks and use of tokens to reinforce on-task behavior can increase on task behavior. It may also be a suitable intervention for parents who are understandably not able to provide one on one interaction and supervision with a child for long durations of time when they have other responsibilities and especially if they have other children to attend to.


Jessel J, Ingvarsson ET, Whipple R, Kirk H. Increasing on-task behavior of an adolescent with autism using momentary differential reinforcement. Behavioral Interventions. 2017.

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