Positive Reinforcement In ABA Therapy (2023)

Positive reinforcement is vital in applied behavioral analysis, especially when working with children with autism.

reuben kesherim
Published By Ruben Kesherim
June 22, 2023

Positive Reinforcement In ABA Therapy (2023)

Learn Why Positive Reinforcement Is So Important in ABA Therapy

Positive reinforcement is vital in applied behavioral analysis, especially when working with children with an autism spectrum disorder. This behavioral management tool shapes positive behavior through incentives. By incentivizing positive behavior, the client is more likely to replace negative behaviors with acceptable ones.

Positive Reinforcement

Children who receive positive reinforcement with ABA therapy are more likely to receive life-changing services that enhance their quality of life.

Therefore, children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder should start obtaining services in early childhood. Early intervention is critical to giving a child the best start and increasing their chances of learning additional skills as they age.

Children with autism have difficulty acquiring and maintaining new skills without initial assistance. Skills taught in ABA therapy include verbal and non-verbal communication, positive social interactions, life skills, and adaptive learning skills.

These skills benefit them in the classroom, increasing their chances of spending more of their school day in a traditional classroom setting.

What Is the Importance of Positive Reinforcement in Autism?

Studies show that positive reinforcement is more successful than other techniques. It is generally preferred to use praise and rewards when a client behaves desirably than to punish undesired behavior.

Children with autism usually respond well to positive reinforcement and are likelier to maintain new skills over time.

These positive behavioral changes can also keep them and others safe. For example, repetitive behaviors occur commonly in children with autism.

Sometimes aggression towards others is a repetitive behavior that causes significant risks. Positive reinforcement can significantly minimize aggressive behavior by giving them an appropriate alternative to physical outbursts.

The Meaning of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is one of the most ethical strategies in behavioral management. In the past, aversive therapy and punishment were standard components of ABA therapy. However, these practices are no longer considered ethical and can harm the client.

A common misconception is that positive reinforcement is equivalent to bribery. Bribery occurs when a person receives a reward if they stop engaging in unwanted behavior.

An example would be a parent pleading with their child to stop throwing tantrums at the store in exchange for a favorite snack. However, this approach is unhelpful if the parent wants to modify their child's behavior permanently.

An example of positive reinforcement is if a parent randomly rewards their child's good behavior in public with a trip to their favorite fast food restaurant. In this manner, positive reinforcement occurs often enough to encourage sustained good behavior over a prolonged period.

While bribery only encourages a person to modify their behavior in exchange for what they want, it is not a sustainable method of behavioral management.

On the other hand, positive reinforcement works well with consistency and is one of the most effective ways of modifying a client's behavior.

Reinforcers: What Are They?

A reinforcer is an immediate consequence after a client engages in a behavior. A reinforcer can be positive or negative, though most therapists prefer positive reinforcement in ABA therapy.

A positive reinforcer may be as simple as praise or a favorite snack. Positive reinforcement adds something a client wants that was not there before the desired behavior occurred. Once the client displays that desired behavior, that item becomes attainable due to their action.

A negative reinforcer refers to removing something unpleasant once the desired behavior occurs. Many parents engage in negative reinforcement when raising their children.

For example, a child may complete their chores to stop their parent's nagging. The unpleasant action would be the parent's continuous nagging. Subsequently, this is negative reinforcement.

Effective Reinforcement and “The A-B-C Model”

When establishing effective reinforcement, ABA therapists utilize the "A-B-C Model" of therapy. This model is crucial to modifying a client's behavior through specific events.

The "A-B-C Model" stands for an antecedent (what happens before the behavior), the client's behavioral response, and the consequence of that behavior.

In theory, this model focuses on the belief that people engage in learned behavior through experience. A client maintains a behavior if it generates a desired outcome. Behaviors are not only learned but taught as well. Therefore, effective consequences reinforce behavior or discourage it from occurring again.

Applying Positive Reinforcement

ABA therapists determine an appropriate schedule to administer positive reinforcement techniques. A client's circumstances or needs will influence this decision. There are five interval schedules for applying positive reinforcement.

In a continuous schedule, reinforcement occurs every time the behavior occurs. However, this option is challenging to maintain, as it is difficult for a therapist to be present every time the desired behavior happens.

A fixed ratio schedule is when positive reinforcement occurs after the behavior happens a specific set of times. Similarly, a fixed interval schedule is when the behavior is present for a particular time.

Variable ratio schedules occur when positive reinforcement happens at different numbers of reoccurrences. A parent may choose to reward their child for completing chores after a few days. A variable interval schedule is when positive reinforcement happens after the desired behavior occurs for varying amounts of time.

An ABA therapist determines which schedule to use. However, most will slowly increase the requirements necessary to receive the positive reinforcer. Once a child requires less guidance and masters a skill, the reinforcer occurs less frequently.

A Brief History of the Use of Positive Reinforcement

B.F. Skinner was a behavioral psychologist interested in developing methods to create and shape desired behavior. He believed in the importance of viewing behavior through actions and consequences. He thought removing a desirable stimulus would cause undesirable behaviors to disappear, while desirable behavior receives reinforcement if there is a positive consequence.

B.F. Skinner initially tested his theory on rodents by using a box. Once the animal pressed a lever within the box, a food pellet would dispense. They quickly learned that pushing that lever would reward them with a positive consequence.

Other positive reinforcements were introduced as well, including light and sound. This box also allowed Skinner to determine which reinforcements would better shape a desired behavior.

These experiments have significant real-world implications, especially when treating children with autism. In addition, positive reinforcement occurs throughout classrooms with children of all abilities.

How ABA Therapists Use Positive Reinforcement

After observing a client's behavior, an ABA therapist uses this information to create a plan to address these issues and improve their situation. The therapist uses positive reinforcement to teach a more acceptable behavior or alternative.

An example may be rewarding a child with screen time if they get dressed and brush their teeth. Applied behavioral analysis is the most effective way to help children with autism spectrum disorder generate new skills while discouraging maladaptive behavior.

Identify Needs

Every client's situational needs are different. For this reason, ABA therapists should work directly with clients and their families to create a program that will address their needs, unique abilities, and interests.

Therapy begins by identifying unsafe and unwanted behavior and learning about potential triggers. This assessment also identifies treatment goals and appropriate alternative behaviors. Reassessment of the treatment plan occurs as therapy progresses, and the therapist may make modifications throughout the process.

Choose Reinforcers

Positive reinforcers fall into several categories. Therefore, therapists may create individualized treatment plans when working with their clients to determine which reinforcers will work best for their situation.

Several types of reinforcers are effective at promoting positive change. Reinforcers may be food, favorite activities, or personal possessions. Other enforcers may be cherished games, crafting projects, or a new toy or clothing item.

Some reinforcers are social. Verbal praise, recognition of efforts, and positive affirmations are examples of social reinforcers. In addition, token reinforcers are also a popular option among ABA therapists. Clients can trade tokens in for a larger reward once they earn enough.

Measure Success

The success of ABA therapy is dependent upon the treatment outcomes. The treatment is successful if a client progresses and meets or exceeds their goals.

ABA therapy aims to enhance a client's overall quality of life. Therefore, several specific domains receive an evaluation, including a client's social skills, positive behavioral adaptations, and effective communication. If the client fails to progress adequately during therapeutic intervention, the treatment plan is modified to meet their goals.

Working Together

Both parents and caregivers play an important role in a client's treatment plan. Not only should caregivers be active in determining which behaviors should be modified, but they should work on strengthening the skills and reinforcement strategies outside of therapy.

While ABA therapy assists children with autism spectrum disorder, parents must maintain the treatment plan at home. Otherwise, a child may not gain the skills they need if caregivers indulge their child's inappropriate behaviors.