Why “First, Then” Actually Works

Categories: Data | Interventions

If you’ve been in the sped world for a while, you’ve definitely uttered the infamous first, then phrase. First wash your hands, then we can eat our snack. Or sometimes it’s something ridiculous that you thought you’d never say like first finish your work, then we can read encyclopedias (whatever floats your boat, kid #encyclopedialover). In the theme of this month, let’s scale back and think about why first, then actually works so we can get even better at using it. 

It all started with my good friend Premack back in 1959. Premack hypothesized that you could determine activity reinforcers by observing how often kids did these activities when left on their own. Activities and behaviors that occurred more often would be considered high-probability behaviors. If you had those behaviors come AFTER low-probability behaviors (something kids rarely do when on their own), it would function as a reinforcer. 

If you left your student in your classroom all by himself for an hour what would he do? Maybe play iPad, use the computer, play on the trampoline, draw with crayons. Those would all be his high-probability behaviors. It’s likely he will do those behaviors on his own. The more time he spends doing each activity the better the chance that activity will be a reinforcer. Will this student likely do a worksheet, complete task boxes, or read a book if nobody told him too? Probably not. Those are our low probability behaviors. They are unlikely to occur when the student is left by himself to do what he wants. So now using the premack principle, we could say first task boxes, then play computer – since we know playing computer is a high-probability behavior and doing task boxes is a low-probability behavior. 

So how can we utilize this in our classrooms?

This has a ton of implications to our classrooms. The main things is – the power of the observation! I talked about this in my post on informal assessments back in the fall. The idea of sitting down and just simply observing your students seems literally insane. We barely have time to go to the bathroom much less have a luxurious observation session. But those observations can be pretty dang helpful. Potential reinforcers = more learning. So do some observations! And when you are doing an observation and your principal walks in and it looks like you are doing nothing, tell them you are using an evidence based practice (the Premack Principle) and determining high-probability behaviors that will function as a reinforcer for your student. BOOM. 

We all have kids that we struggle to find a reinforcer. This could really help determine some activities that we may not have thought of. If you student spends a lot of time tearing paper, looking out the window, or playing with mardi gras beads (those are real examples from students I have had), use those activities as reinforcers. I never thought I’d say first work, then tear paper as much as I did one school year but it worked! And we got a ton of work done! 

Make it even more effective...

You can make this first, then process even more effective by restricting access to the high-probability activity. This is the pumpkin spiced latte effect. You haven’t had a PSL all year and when they finally come out in September you will do anything to get one. So if you don’t let your students play in the break area or jump on the trampoline until they do their low probability behavior – they will be more likely to get it done. 


  1. This is really amazing we need to learn these simple skills to manage some of the behaviours and also to arrange the rotuines in the life of the child so he will be always in good mode to work

  2. Hope this helps!

  3. Great tip at the end. I will definitely play around with restricting the ‘then’ activity to see if it helps motivate my son.

  4. Thank you! I had my son in half-day pre-k for three years, then homeschool for kindergarten. This past year he was in private school for 1st grade when he was diagnosed high-functioning moderate. This technique is going to improve chores & may help away my husband to allow our son to homeschool again!

  5. You are so very welcome! Thanks for reading and good luck 🙂

  6. These readings are encouraging me to take a closer look into SPED and maybe specializing in it. It was very informative and helpful.

  7. Hi Sophia, that’s great to hear! Thanks for reading 🙂


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