Rewards and Reinforcement

What is reinforcement and how is it different to reward

We have been talking up to now about rewards.  We know that a reward is something pleasant that we might work to get.  What is the difference between a reward and a reinforcement?  The difference is that anything that follows a behaviour and increases the likelihood that the behaviour will be more likely to occur is a reinforcement.  Many things can be a potential reward and can be given to a student after a behaviour but if the reward does not make the behaviour more likely to occur then it is not a reinforcement.

An example;

When someone does a job they eventually get paid.  Money is the reward for doing work and no-one would argue that money acts as a reward.  However, it depends on the circumstances whether money acts as a reinforcer, i.e. will cause a person to go back and do more jobs.  The nature of the job (nice or horrible) and the amount of money (a lot or not much) has to be taken into consideration.

This interaction between the behaviour and the reward is true for our kids in class as well. The ‘strength’ of the reward is important and the difficulty/stressfulness/effortfulness of the expected behaviour is also important.

Basically the effort of the behaviour has to be outweighed by the power of the reward.  Choosing rewards that are powerful is the first job and making sure the task (behaviour) is not too difficult/stressful/effortful is the second.  Kids with special needs may have difficulties with attention, memory, concentration and/or thinking so tasks we believe should be pretty easy might cause anxiety since the effort needed to complete them is more than we realise. One thing we have found is that if you start slowly with minimal work and maximal reinforcement, you can gradually build up to more work so do not be dismayed when you start and think nothing much is getting done.

Different types of Reinforcement

It is a good idea to try out a variety of potential rewards to find out what works best for a particular student. Also bear in mind that what might be reinforcing today might not be tomorrow.   It is important that staff introduce choice as quickly as possible when reinforcing. Telling a child “Do your work or you will not go out to play“ is not a reinforcer, it is a threat. Also it is important, so that the student does not become dependent on staff members, not to tell them what to play with all the time. Choice can give students a feeling of importance and control and can further develop positive feelings about their school experience.

Reinforcements might be a favorite toy, sparkly or noisy ones seem to be valued, time on an ipad or PC, going outside to play on equipment, time to chat to staff, interesting book, drawing own pictures, writing on a small board, time out in a small play area or tent etc.

Different types of reinforcement

Choosing Tasks and Lesson Pacing

When we work with a student we don’t know well, we start off expecting very simple, easy tasks (behaviours) followed by an immediate tangible reward (reinforcer) such as a toy we know they like.  We may only expect a 2 minute task at first followed by a minute of reward time so the lesson time is broken up into many small parts.  Gradually, tasks can be lengthened or made more difficult but if things fall apart, you know that the task has become too effortful or the reinforcer has ceased to work or both.  Don’t rush, take time and work the student out.  It is your responsibility not theirs to get this right.  You will reap the rewards.

Different types of reinforcement schedule

Once you have got the behaviour/reward thing working really well you may be able to progress to different reward schedules.   Reinforcers can be given in a variety of ways which different effects.  The hierarchy of reinforcers are as follows:

  • Immediate tangible reinforcement – give this straight after the behaviour – strong link between behaviour and reinforcer in student’s mind
  • Slightly delayed reinforcement – wait a short while, maybe expect two short tasks before reinforcer is given – not as strong
  • Delayed reinforcement – wait a while and do lots of tasks before giving reward – weaker link but can get more work done for each reward
  • Token Economy – e.g. get a token after each work activity is completed, gain 5 tokens to get the final reward – weaker but get a lot of work done per reward, student needs to learn by experience that a token is a type of reinforcer. You can use a token economy to help a student ‘wait’.  Tokens can be given in rapid succession.

For example:

A student needs to wait in line for 2 minutes before going through a door.  She finds this very exasperating and anxiety provoking and regularly starts to become dysregulated.  An answer might be to help her cope with the passing of time using a star or token chart with 5 or 10 tokens.  Every 20 seconds or so put another one on the chart until the time is over.  She will need to be sure that once all the stars are on the chart she is able to go through the door, so you need to time it well.

Example of a token economy being used 

  • Star Chart – can have large star charts with 20 or more stars to be earned during a time period which could be a day or more  – weak link to final reward but stars reinforce the final reward

Reinforcement should generally be paired with social praise for most students.  They will then learn to enjoy social praise which may also function as a reinforcer.  The higher the cognitive ability of the student, the further down the hierarchy of reinforcers you will be able to go.  Reinforcers shouldn’t be overused as they lose their strength so if you can move down the hierarchy it is useful.

Other ways reinforcers can be used particularly if students are capable and have some social awareness:

Star Charts– a variation on token economy, usually more of a group approach, progress of each student can be monitored against peers

Vicarious Reinforcement when one child sees another reinforced for a certain behaviour, they will imitate them, a teacher may ignore inappropriate behaviours and just attend to students who are behaving appropriately

Differential Reinforcement – positive reinforcement of desired appropriate behaviours and withholding of reinforcement following undesirable behaviours

‘Premack’ Principle – classroom approach where difficult activities are planned before enjoyable activities, students use a schedule so they can see they have to do A before B – first/then timetables.

If you are interested to see a bit more about reinforcers and their use:

HERE is a 6 minute video on Reinforcement

When you are ready you can move on to the NEXT SECTION – VISUAL SUPPORTS