Behavior Reinforcement for Children with Autism

When your children or clients do something that makes you think, “wow, I’d love to see that more!” Did you know you could actually make that happen? Today I’m going to talk all about behavior reinforcement.

I once worked with a boy, I’ll call him Roger, who would hit his siblings anytime mom walked out of the room. Every time he did it, mom would come running back into the room to break things up. Then she would take Roger into the other room with her, leave the siblings behind, and talk to Roger calmly about how it was important for him not to hit and those sorts of things. Mom could not figure out why this behavior wouldn’t stop, even though she was taking him away from all the fun and having a talk with him. 

Behavioral Reinforcement 

Here’s what I know for sure. If any behavior is increasing or happening frequently at a steady rate, it means that this behavior is being reinforced. So we have to find out what the behavioral reinforcement is that’s causing Roger to keep hitting his siblings when mom is not present. 

So to address the situation with Roger, I taught mom how to prevent Roger from hitting his siblings. And when hitting did occur, we stopped having mom rush back in to give him a lot of attention. Within days he stopped hitting. Mom’s attention, unknowingly to her, was actually the reinforcement for that behavior. Of course, we also trained Roger’s siblings on how to not respond and not to egg him on especially when mom was not in the room. 

What is Positive Reinforcement? 

There’s a lot of confusion about this.  Before I was a behavior analyst, I used to think reinforcement was just an item or an action that the child liked, that made the child smile. But in order for something to be considered a behavioral reinforcer, it has to maintain or increase a behavior. So, if a child is getting a sticker for peeing on the potty, but peeing on the potty does not increase, then the sticker is not a reinforcer even if the child smiles or takes it. Or, the sticker is just not a dense enough reinforcer for the behavior. 

Kids with Autism usually lack a lot of language, and these kids need more tangible and immediate reinforcers like an edible treat, a special drink, a short clip of a movie, or bubbles blown after a good behavior or one we want to see more of. They simply don’t understand more long term reinforcers like earning 5 tokens to get a toy or earning stickers and then at the end of the week, cashing them in. Children with autism with very poor language skills don’t understand these systems, at least initially.

Reinforcement vs Bribery

There’s also a lot of confusion about positive reinforcement versus bribery. Basically reinforcement is planned. It’s adult-led and it follows a behavior we want. Bribery often follows behaviors we don’t want like crying or whining.

When I was like four years old, one of my first memories was when my mom would put me in the grocery store cart and give me a pack of animal crackers from the shelf. I would eat them throughout the store and then we’d pay for the empty box at the end. That’s a planned reinforcer to keep me quiet, to keep me in my seat, to keep me safe. 

An example of bribery might be a child who gets to the grocery store and starts whining and crying and throwing themselves on the ground when they want candy and you say no. Then you start negotiating with a crying child or telling them if they quiet down, we can get the candy. That is bribery. So we want to make sure we are using planned reinforcement ahead of the behavior. And we’re not using reinforcers after the child starts displaying problem behavior.

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Preventing Problem Behaviors

So, how do you figure out what is reinforcing the behavior you don’t like? In general, we need to spend 95% of our time preventing problem behaviors by reinforcing behaviors you want to see and stop being so reactive – like Roger’s mom was doing – when problem behaviors do happen.

Sometimes we accidentally reinforce behaviors we don’t want to see, and this can cause more problem behaviors. We want to focus on giving eight positives to every negative as Dr. Glenn Latham recommended in his book, Positive Parenting. I covered this book and how to be more positive in a positive praise blog a few years ago.

Behavior Reinforcement Help

In summary, behavioral reinforcement of good behaviors and making sure we’re not reinforcing problem behaviors can change a lot for children with autism. We need to focus on the good behaviors that we want to see, and this will oftentimes make the problem behaviors lessen and go away. 

So whether you’re a parent or professional, it’s important to understand the types of reinforcement and the best ways to reinforce a child’s behavior and when. If you want to learn more, I would encourage you to take my two minute quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz to get started on the right path and keep learning more about behavior reinforcement. 

Want to learn more about behavior reinforcement?
Take my autism quiz

Transcript

When your children or clients do something that makes you think, wow, I’d love to see that more. Did you know you could actually make that happen? Today, we’ll be discussing this and more in this video blog all about behavior reinforcement. Hi, I’m Dr. Mary Barbera, autism mom, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and bestselling author.

Each week I provide you with some of my ideas about turning autism or signs of autism around, so if you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel, you can do that now. I once worked with a boy, I’ll call him Roger, who would hit his siblings anytime mom walked out of the room. Every time he did it, mom would come running back into the room to break things up, break the fight up, and then she would take Roger into the other room with her, with her, leave the siblings behind, and then she would talk to Roger calmly about how it was important for him not to hit and those sorts of things. Mom could not figure out why this behavior wouldn’t stop, even though she was taking him away from all the fun and having a talk with him. Here’s what I know for sure. If any behavior is increasing or happening frequently at a steady rate, it means that this, this behavior is being reinforced.

So we have to find out why this behavior, what the reinforcement is, what the behavior,  behavioral reinforcement is that’s causing Roger to keep hitting his siblings when mom is not present. So to address the situation with Roger, I taught mom how to prevent Roger from hitting his siblings and when hitting did occur, we stopped having mom rush back in to give him a lot of attention.

And within days he stopped hitting. Mom’s attention, unknowingly to her, was actually the reinforcement for that behavior. Of course, we also trained Roger’s siblings, not how to not respond and not to egg him on when mom, especially when mom was not in the room. What is positive reinforcement and there’s a lot of confusion about this.  Before I was a behavior analyst, I used to think reinforcement was just an item or an action that the child liked, that made the child smile. That was positive reinforcement. But in order for something to be considered a behavioral reinforcer, it has to maintain or increase a behavior. So if a child is getting a sticker for peeing on the potty, but peeing on the potty, does it not increase, then the sticker is not a reinforcer even if the child smiles or takes it.  Or the sticker is just not dense enough of a reinforcer for the behavior. Kids with autism lack a lot of language usually, and these kids need more tangible and immediate reinforcers like an edible treat, a special drink, watching a short clip of a movie or having bubbles blown after a behavior we want to see more of. They simply don’t understand more long term reinforcer like earn this many tokens and then you get this toy or earning stickers and then at the end of the week, cashing them in. Children with autism with very poor language skills don’t understand these systems, at least initially.

There’s also a lot of confusion about reinforcement versus bribery. And I did a whole video blog on that, um, which you can definitely check out, but basically reinforcement is planned. It’s adult led and it follows a behavior we want. While bribery often follows behaviors we don’t want like crying or whining.

So if you have a child in the grocery store, a planned reinforcer might be that the, um, I know when I was, I was like four years old and  one of my first memories was my mom would put me in the grocery store cart.. She would actually get a pack of animal crackers, a little box, and I would eat them throughout the store.

And then we’d pay for the empty box at the end. That’s a planned reinforcer to keep me quiet, to keep me in my seat, to keep me safe. Another example, not a good example, but an example of bribery might be for a child who is, uh, gets to the grocery store starts whining and crying and throwing themselves on the ground when they want candy and you say no. Um, then you, you start negotiating with a crying child or telling them if they quiet down, we can get the candy. That is bribery. So we want to make sure we are using planned reinforcement ahead of the behavior. And we’re not, um, using reinforcer after the child starts to displaying problem behavior.

So, how do you figure out what is reinforcing the behavior you don’t like? Um, I did do a podcast and several video blogs on problem behaviors, so you want to check those out. In general, we need to spend 95% of our time preventing problem behavior by reinforcing behaviors you want to see and stop being so reactive, like Roger’s mom was doing, when problem behaviors do happen.

Sometimes we accidentally reinforce behaviors we don’t want to see, and this can cause just more problem behaviors. We want to focus on giving eight positives to every negative as Dr. Glenn Latham recommended in his book, Positive Parenting. I did, uh, cover this book and how to be more positive in a positive blog a few years ago.

In summary, behavioral reinforcement of good behaviors and making sure we’re not reinforcing problem behaviors can change a lot for children with autism, and we need to focus on the good behaviors that we want to see, and this will oftentimes make the problem behaviors lesson and go away. So whether you’re a parent or professional, it’s important to understand the types of reinforcement and the best ways to reinforce a child’s behavior and when. If you want to learn more, I would encourage you to take my two minute quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz to get started on the right path and keep learning more about behavior reinforcement. If you like this video, I would love it if you would give me a thumbs up, leave a comment, share it with others who might benefit.

And remember, don’t forget to, uh, take the two minute quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz. It’s for both parents and professionals, toddlers through teens. You don’t want to miss it. And I will see you right here next week.

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