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How Positive Reinforcement is Used in ABA

In the worlds of education, parenting, and psychology, positive reinforcement is a type of intervention in which reinforcement is given to an individual to either increase a target behavior, and it is considered the cornerstone of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Being able to manipulate consequences is the primary application of positive reinforcement and is the foundation of teaching and being able to obtain desired behaviors. The importance of positive reinforcement is something that should not be looked past. It is a vital, research-based intervention with decades of history behind it; it has been proven to be a positive method for changing behavior. 

A Brief History of the Use of Positive Reinforcement 

Behavior psychologist, B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), was deemed the Father of Operant Conditioning (or classical conditioning), which is the idea that the most effective way to view behavior is to look closely at the actions and consequences of individuals’ behaviors. “Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e., strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e., weakened) (Simply Psychology).

B.F. Skinner is widely known for his “Skinner Box.” In 1948, he created a puzzle-like box to study operant conditioning with a series of experiments conducted on animals. During these experiments, the animal within the chamber pressed a button or lever in order to earn a type of reinforcer (usually food); however, Skinner also used cocaine as a reinforcer for rats and sometimes non-edible reinforcers such as sounds or lights. These were used along with other experimental variables, such as the unique reinforcement schedules that were assigned to each group of animals. 

“What exactly was the purpose of a Skinner box? Using the device researchers could carefully study behavior in a very controlled environment. For example, researchers could utilize the Skinner box to determine which schedule of reinforcement led to the highest rate of response in the study subjects,” (VeryWellMind). 

His experiments transitioned from a lab setting to the general population with psychologists, clinicians, educators, and parents using the basics of operant conditioning, and more specifically positive reinforcement with children, students, and patients. 

How Positive Reinforcement is Used Today

Positive reinforcement is now widely used in various settings; many people utilize the components of the intervention and do not even realize it. Parents use it with their children to encourage them to do chores; teachers use it with their students to increase time-on-task; employers use it with their employees to encourage them to be at work on time or to increase productivity, and clinicians use it with their patients/clients to increase desired target behaviors. Those who work in the field of ABA are very familiar with positive reinforcement and successful outcomes. 

There are certain components of positive reinforcement that need to be used consistently for the intervention to work effectively. 

One component of positive reinforcement is the schedule of reinforcers (which will be discussed later on). A positive reinforcement schedule is a plan that defines how you will go about encouraging the behavior.

There are 5 different reinforcement schedules to choose from (Positive Psychology):

● Continuous schedule: the behavior is reinforced after every occurrence (this schedule is hard to keep up on since we are rarely able to be present for each occurrence).

● Fixed ratio: the behavior is reinforced after a specific number of occurrences (e.g., after every three times).

● Fixed interval: the behavior is reinforced after a specific amount of time (e.g., after three weeks of good behavior).

● Variable ratio: the behavior is reinforced after a variable number of occurrences (e.g., after one occurrence, then after another three, then after another two).

● Variable interval: the behavior is reinforced after a variable amount of time (e.g., after one minute, then after 30 minutes, then after 10 minutes).

Another important component of positive reinforcement is that the reinforcer must be given immediately after the desired behavior has taken place. 

“Reinforcement that is delayed is likely to increase the behavior occurring when the positive reinforcer is delivered rather than the behavior that it was intended to reinforce.

A child, who has earned a reward but receives it only after he starts crying for it, is reinforced for crying, not for what he did to earn it,” (Clear Vision). 

Lastly, for positive reinforcement to be an effective intervention, the reinforcers must be individualized for each person receiving the reinforcement.

“People are unique in the things they find reinforcing. Although many people may find the same things to be reinforcing, not everyone will. For example, a large percentage of people at work find money to be highly reinforcing but, believe it or not, some people have all they need or want (and they are not all rich). Therefore, the offer of money as a positive reinforcer for some behavior will not be motivating to such people. Employees often turn down overtime pay because they value their free time more than they value more money,” (Clear Vision). 

With individualization, there are certain categories of reinforcers. As stated above, the type of reinforcer given is going to be different depending on the individual and their wants and needs. 

The categories of reinforcers along with examples of each include: 

Edibles: food or drink choices: Water bottles on the desk, juice, fruit, milk, popcorn, raisins, crackers, goldfish. Check state guidelines regarding edible reinforcers.

Activities: activities that can be enjoyed by groups of students or by individual students: Games, reading a book, music, art projects, assisting the teacher, puzzles, no homework days.

Tangible: personal possessions, clothing, toys from a toy chest, logo apparel such as hats or shirts, magazines, miniature cars, action figures and notebooks.

Social: specific praise, smiles, conversations, eye contact, thumbs-up, recognition of efforts, verbal praise, Friday Fun Club, and nodding in affirmation.

Tokens: token reinforcers that can be exchanged for a reinforcer that is valued by the learner: tokens, tickets or themed “bucks” that can be exchanged for computer time, lunch in the classroom, food items, movie tickets, late passes or other desirable items or privileges. 

Positive Reinforcement Versus Bribery

Positive reinforcement is not the same thing as bribery. 

Take a look at two examples:

● Bribery: Johnny is screaming at the grocery store and having a temper tantrum. His mother tells him that if he stops the negative behavior that he will get McDonalds on the way home.

● Positive Reinforcement: Johnny sometimes has a temper tantrum at the grocery store, but this time he did not and acted appropriately. His mother stops by McDonalds on the way home and lets Johnny know that he has earned the treat because of his good behaviors. 

● Bribery: Natasha’s teacher asks her if he gives her School Store Bucks, will she refrain from eloping from class when she gets frustrated with work, which is one of her IEP target behaviors. 

● Positive Reinforcement: Natasha’s teacher recognizes the hard work that she is doing during class one day. When she is finished with her work, which was a challenge for her, he asks her if she would like to go on a 10-minute walk with a preferred person. 

Bribing individuals when the ultimate goal is to change behavior for the long-run is not recommended and will only encourage individuals to continue engaging in inappropriate behaviors because they know they get what they want regardless. 

Overall, positive reinforcement is one of the easiest ways to change behavior, and when implemented correctly, it can be highly effective and successful. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

March 2020

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