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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

Using Preference Assessments for Getting to Know a Child Better and Helping Them Learn

Getting to know a child is necessary in order to help that child to learn and grow.

Part of getting to know a child is to learn about their interests. Learning what a child likes to do, what they like to spend their time on, and what motivates them to behave in certain ways is essential whether you are a parent, a therapist, or a teacher.

One way to get to know more about a child is to use preference assessments.

Preference assessments can be very formal and structured or more informal and unstructured.

What is a Preference Assessment?

A preference assessment can help to identify potential reinforcers that can be used to increase the occurrence of desired behaviors. Reinforcers, or items that increase the frequency of a behavior, could be items like toys, food or drinks, or other tangible items. They could also be things like activities that a person does on their own (like going for a walk) or activities they do with another person (like having a conversation or playing together).

Children with autism may not be motivated by things that other kids are motivated by or maybe not in the same way or to the same degree. For instance, some kids will behave appropriately when their parent tells them nice job and praises them for their good behavior. However, some kids do not show ‘good behavior’ consistently based on being praised alone (although sometimes certain teaching strategies can help with this).

A preference assessment is an assessment or an evaluation that uses structured trials or planned observations with the purpose of identifying a person’s preferences or interests.

As a result of a preference assessment, you can also order a person’s interests into high interest to low interest items and activities. This is helpful when teaching a child because you are likely able to encourage them to do more challenging tasks when rewarded with higher interest items.

Types of Preference Assessments

There are multiple ways of completing a preference assessment.

Some examples of preference assessments that can be used include (Chazin & Ledford, 2016):

  • Multiple Stimulus without Replacement (MSWO) Preference Assessments
  • Multiple Stimulus with Replacement (MSW) Preference Assessments
  • Paired Stimulus Preference Assessments
  • Single Stimulus Preference Assessments
  • Free Operant Preference Assessments

Which Preference Assessment is Recommended for Parents?

Although parents can learn to use any of the preference assessments, the free operant preference assessment is probably the most practical of all of the preference assessments for a parent to use in the home.

A free operant preference assessment is primarily based upon observation. The parent, therapist, or teacher observes a child while a child is free to choose what he wants to do during the observation. There should be a variety of items or activities available for the child during this assessment.

In the home, most likely the child’s room or other designated play area will already have items and activities available that the child typically likes, so there may not be much preparation work needed on the parent’s part for this assessment.

Basically, the parent should observe the child during a specified time and then the parent can record what the child chooses to spend his time doing.

This can be done either with a focus on play and leisure items, on food items, or even on social activities.

To identify preferences related to food items, the parent can simply present multiple food items and allow the child to pick whatever he or she wants to eat.

To identify preferences related to social activities, the parent can participate in social activities with the child, such as reading a book to the child, playing with blocks, or riding bikes…the list is endless. This may require a little bit more flexibility compared to identifying the child’s preferred tangible leisure items.


Using Preference Assessments for Getting to Know a Child Better and Helping Them Learn

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). Using Preference Assessments for Getting to Know a Child Better and Helping Them Learn. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 3, 2020, from