How to Determine Reinforcers

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Teachers in the ABA world are likely familiar with the word ‘reinforcer’. A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur. Most of the time in ABA we deal with positive reinforcement (adding something to increase behavior/response). But how do you determine a reinforcer for your students? Especially those kiddos who seem to fleet between favorite items, loving skittles first hour and hating them by third hour. We are going to break down different kinds of reinforcers and how to determine what reinforcer to use. 


No Two Students Are Alike.

Have you heard the saying “if you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism”? It’s true. Read more about Dr. Stephen Shore’s quote here. Each student is unique in their own way, including preferences and reinforcers. You will have students who are easy to figure out and are easily motivated by favorite items. In turn, you’ll have kiddos you struggle to figure out. Approach each student as an individual. Don’t assume just because six of your students love trains that your new student will love them, too.  

Provide a Choice Board.

Lay out different visuals of reinforcers for students to choose from. Use these visuals on a choice board. Let students determine what is on the choice board. The Autism Helper has a great choice board for you, too! No two choice boards should look the same. By allowing your students to have choice, your reinforcer is more likely to be successful and strong. 


Keep it Fresh.

Rotating reinforcer choices helps keep interest. You may need to do this several times a day or you may be able to get away with changing out choices each week. It will depend greatly on your students. Just remember that choice and novelty is important. There’s a reason I’ll do just about anything for a Girl Scout cookie right now! I haven’t had them in a year and I couldn’t wait for my order to come in. The same goes for reinforcers. Keep items rotating so your choices are new and exciting.

Think Beyond Food.

There’s nothing wrong with using food as a reinforcer, but don’t let that be your only choice. Social reinforcers are some of the most powerful tools you’ve got as a teacher. Working for tickles, high fives, and praise can work wonders. I had one student who loved to work for me to pretend cry. They thought it was hilarious… hey! Whatever works! Don’t underestimate your attention as being a reinforcer! If you have a student who craves attention, have them get the most attention when they are doing their best work. Games are huge rewards in my classroom, too. Several of my students work to play a game with another student. I’m lucky enough to have a sensory room next door to my classroom. Often my students work for swinging, jumping on a trampoline, or reading in a tent. 

Preferred Items May Not Be Strong Reinforcers.

You read that right. Sometimes preferred items may not be strong reinforcers. It all depends on the access a student has to the item. If your student loves Minecraft videos and has unrestricted access to them at home, they may not work as a reinforcer at school. Just because it’s a preferred item doesn’t mean the student will work for that item. Location matters, too. If a child works for skittles at home, that doesn’t mean they will work for skittles at school. Constantly allow choice and provide variety of reinforcement items. 

When You Can’t Assess.

Reinforcement surveys and assessments are great for older or more verbal students. But what can you do when a student comes to you with little communication or is very young? Observe. Watch them in the classroom. Where do they go? What do they do? Ask their parents for favorite items, favorite shows, favorite foods. Lay items out on a table and see what they pick up. Try those items are reinforcers first, and hone them as you go. 

Stay the Course.

Often times it takes a bit to find the right reinforcer. Stay the course and keep trying. Don’t be discouraged. Eventually you’ll find the right reinforcer. Meanwhile, I’m going to have a Girl Scout cookie.


Jen Koenig, B.S, M.Ed., LBS1
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1 Comment

  1. LOVE this! Can you post thechecklist?!? It would be super helpful! Thanks and your amazing!!


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