Preference Assessments and Pairing

Categories: Interventions

When I do behavior trainings, I always ask people to raise their hand if they would still come to work if they no longer got a paycheck. There is usually a kind soul that meekly raises their hand (or wants to look good in front of administrators), but usually a see a sea crossed arms. No blame. I wouldn’t go to work either if I weren’t getting paid. The same goes for our kids. They aren’t going to do all of the challenging tasks that we have laid out for them if they aren’t getting something out of it. Again – no blame. That something out of it is reinforcement. With every behavior we do – we continent to complete those behaviors because of the reinforcement that follows it.

But how do we determine what those reinforcers are? Preferences can change over time! Conduct regular preference assessments to see what items and activities are reinforcing for that student. 

Types of Preference Assessments

  • A structure and systematic preference assessment like the Multiple Stimulus Without Replacement (MSWO) method is great to get a ranking of different items. I promise it sounds way more complicated than it is and in reality takes less than a few minutes. Read all about utilizing this procedure here.
  • An informal preference assessment or observation can also be very helpful. Set a timer and watch your student interact with items in the play area of break area. Write down which items he picks up and note which things he plays with the longest.
  • Parent interviews may be helpful to determine some potential reinforcers. Ask the parents loads of open ended questions about what they do at home. Don’t just ask – what are you child’s reinforcers? – they may be struggling to answer that question too! Ask questions like: What would you bring for a plane ride? What does you child do right when they get home? What things are in their room?


In addition to conducting regular and frequent preference assessments, we want to working on pairing ourselves with those reinforcers. This is imperative especially at the start of the year. Remember the goal – be the chocolate chip cookie! You want to be a reinforcing, delicious, amazing person to be around – and you can do that by pairing yourself with things the student likes and enjoys. Read this post for tons of tips. During pairing you are building rapport. It is all about low demand, high reward. Who wouldn’t love that? By being the “giver of all things good” you will likely start to be a reinforcer yourself. Some tips for pairing:

  • You are in control of the desired items/activities. Yes, you are giving those items for free but it’s important that the iPad, skittles, bubbles, or Ricky Martin CD come directly from your hands to theirs.
  • Use the results of your preference assessments to determine which items are likely to be reinforcers and pair yourself with those items.
  • No demands right away. Bite your little teacher tongue. It’s tempting to try and sneak some demands in but that’s not the goal right now. The goal is to have fun, get your student to like you, and start to gain instructional control. Don’t worry – there will be plenty of time for demands later! 😉
  • Pairing is not only for the start of the year. Pair a little bit every single day and you will have a bomb year. You need to continuously establish yourself as a chocolate chip cookie and make sure that doesn’t wear off.
  • Play with your student how he likes to play. If he wants to spin around the trampoline instead of jump on it – cool. If he wants to line up play trains instead of drive them on the track – no problem. This about doing things he enjoys!

After you’ve done some great pairing, you can gradually add in some demands and work tasks. You are working on getting your student to like you, come to you, and be ready to learn from you. This is the first step in teaching a new skill! You’ve got to get the instructional control first.


  1. I have three para professionals in my classroom with me who work directly with my students, as well. One of the three is basically a one on one aid for one of my students, and she works directly with him for most of the day, although I make it a point to get a little time in with him by myself at least once a day. The problem is his volatility and she has been working with him for over four years now. When it comes to pairing for reinforcement, is it OK that my Paras give the reinforcers just like I do? I’m not sure how I would take that away from them.

  2. YES! Your paras should be pairing too! You students should want to work with the paraprofessionals as much as they do you! 🙂

  3. I have a nonverbal student who becomes physically aggressive during the last 45 minutes of the day, no matter what time we get out of school. None of the reinforcers work! This has been going on for 2 years, so I really think it’s anxiety about transitioning home. Any suggestions? We’ve even tried social stories and reward charts.

  4. That’s a tricky one because you can’t avoid going home! Have you talked with mom or dad about having a preferred activity or reinforcer ready for him when he gets home? Then you can talk about that at school too.


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