We have all had that student that does not outwardly express what they want to work for. They don’t verbally respond to a reinforcer survey or clearly indicate what they would enjoy after a period of work. Honestly, they may not know what they would enjoy. This student may be sensory aversive on the Autism spectrum and many options for “play” are not enjoyable. If you are in a classroom with students with many different types of disabilities, you may have a student with a hearing or vision impairment that may need a wider range of reinforcers than just a go to type of electronic device or edible reinforcer. These students need something motivating to work for as well. It may take a bit more time to find that great reinforcer, but it is worth the time. 

Do your Research

Before you spend too much time racking your brain, make sure that you have exhausted your options, asking any and all who might already know the answer. A few weeks before school starts, I email a Beginning of the Year survey to parents, included on this survey is a place for reinforcers that work at home. This can be a wonderful “leg up” with newer students. Reinforcers may be discovered over the summer or any point in the year, so open and consistent communication is important to keep everyone in the know. 

It is also a great idea to ask teachers, paraprofessionals, or therapists that have worked with this student before what worked for them. This may be as easy as asking another teacher in your school or school district. This may also take contacting someone from another school district or even another state, but as long as the proper information releases are signed, it is worth the effort. It is my default to worry that I am bothering another teacher or other professional and taking away their precious time. Then I think about how willing I, or any of my colleagues, would be to share our prior knowledge with another educator who needs insight into a complex student.


Reinforcer Assessment

An important way to structure your reinforcer assessment is to make sure that you assess across all of the sensory systems. Our own Katie McKenna has a series of blogs that explore each of the sensory systems. These posts give so much great info about the effects of these systems on your daily classroom activities. For students who don’t respond to a typical fidget, toy, or ipad option, a hands on reinforcer assessment can be vital. 

There are formal options online, but you can also create your own with materials that you have on hand. I like to introduce each reinforcer individually and observe how the student responds, on a range of 1-10. Again, this may take some time, but it is worth it. You can chunk it up and do just 15 min a day until something clicks.


Common Reinforcers within Each Sensory System

Visual: Videos, Books, Puzzles 

I have a current student who is so reinforced by Eric Carle books specifically. She has a visual impairment and loves the bright colors and interesting shapes. We share this love as Eric Carle also happens to be my favorite author!


Auditory: Music, Movie Clips, Musical Instruments

One of my student has the most diverse taste in music. I would never have thought that he would love Winona Judd, Phantom of the Opera, and the Beach Boys, but he does! I have another student who LOVES auditory clips from his favorite movies and mixes these movie quotes with music to make his own to create original remixes. This is a way that we have been able to take a less age appropriate reinforcer and bring it to a more age appropriate place.


Tactile: Fidgets, Bean/Rice Bins, Water Beads

Another student that I work with loves his Beans. We incorporate his bean bins into academic work and it goes so well!  I personally respond really well to fidgets also! I love to have them in meetings or when I’m feeling stressed, so I don’t bite my nails! 


Olfactory: Scented Markers, Scented Oils

Not many people think about this system, but if you are at a loss, it’s a system to explore. I’ve worked with students who are tube fed (so no edible reinforcers), who also have hearing and vision impairments, who really respond to scented stuffed animals and other olfactory based reinforcers.


Gustatory: Edible reinforcers, out of the ordinary options that I’ve seen work well: raw purple onions, wasabi, and dabs of spicy mustard 

This is often the go to for reinforcers and they do work great, but consider long term sustainability. I think that decreasing the size of the reinforcers and trying to move away from candy is important for the long term. Also, when assessing, try all types of tastes, include sour and bitter and all types of bold flavors just in case that is the thing they have been yearning for!


Vestibular: Swings, Trampoline, Workout balls, Walks

Understanding this system better over time has been a game changer for me. I have several students who work hard for the opportunity to go on walks or going up/down the stairs on our campus. I think it is important to work with your occupational therapist to work out a plan for addressing a student’s vestibular needs in addition to using this as a reinforcer.


Proprioception: Putty, Push/Pull activities, Vacuuming

Pushing a cart, vacuuming a room, or tossing a weighted workout ball may not seem typical for a reinforcer, but every student is different. It’s worth trying a variety of options to find that super reinforcing activity! This has also been a great opportunity to work with my OT to gain access to all types of creative options for equipment and materials.


Get Creative 

I love on social media when Sasha takes an inventory of really creative reinforcers. I think this highlights the uniqueness of our students. They are incredible individuals who can be motivated by some very out of the ordinary options. Some of my favorites from my classroom over the years have been: comparison shopping for appliances, listening to obviously fake and over exaggerated sneezing, smelling linen spray, picking tape from surfaces, and “sword fighting” with pool noodles. Each was found through a process of investigating and each fueled hours of productive work! What are your most unique and beloved reinforcers?


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