“Should I really reward my child every time they do something?”
This is a common question parents may ask or at least wonder about from time to time especially if they are told or believe that rewarding kids is an effective strategy for helping their child learn new skills and improve their behavior.
One concern that some people may have about using concepts of applied behavior analysis with children, especially with children with disabilities, is that it may seem like the child gets a “reward” or that they get reinforced too often.
It’s okay to reward a child (reinforce them) often…at first
This is not necessarily an issue initially, but when a child does get reinforced frequently, it is a good idea to consider what natural rates of reinforcement look like so that this can be part of the intervention plans or strategy for helping the child to develop their skills without having to consistently be rewarded forever.
Consider what the end goal should be for type and rate of reinforcement (reward)
Behavior analysis promotes the idea of “using appropriate parameters and schedules of reinforcement” as seen in the BACB task list, specifically in Task List Item Number D-02.
What this means is that, whether you are a treatment provider who uses the concepts of behavior analysis or you are a parent or teacher who helps a child through the effective methods of ABA, you should consider the types of reinforcement and the rate or schedule of reinforcement that will be used to help improve a child’s skills or behaviors.
Recap – What is reinforcement?
As a recap, reinforcement is not simply the same thing as reward but in some cases a reward can be considered reinforcement.
Reinforcement refers to the addition of a stimulus after the occurrence of a target behavior with that behavior occurring more often in the future as a result of that added stimulus. So, reinforcement is when what happens after a behavior leads to that behavior happening more often.
What is the natural type and rate of reinforcement for a behavior?
Behavior change is more likely to occur by using high rates of reinforcement at first – that is, to reinforce continuously and at every occurrence of the behavior you want to see more often.
However, it is just as important to think about what a natural reinforcement contingency would be for that particular skill or behavior that you are targeting.
This means that you should work toward fading out reinforcement to the extent that the rate of reinforcement and type of reinforcement would more closely match what would reasonably occur in a natural situation.
Fading reinforcement – an example
Let’s take a look at an example:
If four year old Austin is learning to have bowel movements on the toilet, his parent and/or treatment provider may give him a reward, such as letting him play on a tablet or giving him a preferred piece of candy, after every attempt or actual void in the toilet.
This reinforcement continues to occur and Austin continues to poop on the toilet more often. Although he may still have some accidents in his underwear, his accidents are reducing in frequency and he is going potty on the toilet more often.
To consider the natural reinforcement for this situation, the parent or treatment provider will consider how children are not rewarded with tangible items or treats for going potty for their entire childhood. Instead, the act of going to the bathroom on the toilet itself becomes the reinforcement (likely combined with negative reinforcement of relieving an unpleasant sensation that one feels when they have to urinate or have a bowel movement).
To ensure that reinforcement matches natural experiences, the parent or treatment provider would give Austin less time with his tablet after going to the bathroom and would likely reward after every two voids on the toilet, and then every 2-3 times, and so on.
Another option would be to switch to using a token board so that there is a visual for when Austin can earn his tablet time or treats which can help to fade out reinforcement, as well.
Once having bowel movements on the toilet is a regular occurrence and no accidents are happening, reinforcement can be reduced even more.
Use consistent reinforcement to intermittent reinforcement to naturally occurring rates of reinforcement
Fading out reinforcement is something that a parent and treatment provider should consider.
It is helpful to reward a child immediately every time they do something you are working on getting them to do. This is using continuous reinforcement.
It is important to transition to intermittent reinforcement when appropriate, as well. This is providing reinforcement after some but not all occurrences of a behavior.
Equally important, though, is to consider what the naturally occurring type and rate of reinforcement is so that you can work toward this with the child.