Why Reinforcement is the First Thing to Consider When Teaching a New Skill

Categories: Data | Interventions

Now before we go busting out data sheets and getting into the specifics of how to teach a new skill, there is something we must do first – identify reinforcers. This step is critical. If you forget it, you may have a hard time teaching that new skill. 

Reinforcement is something that will increase future behaviors. We need to ensure that behaviors we want to see more of are consistently followed with reinforcement. New skills that we teach are behaviors we want to see more of. Just like you aren’t willing to go to work for free, our kids aren’t willing to work for free. And we can’t blame them for that. Their hard work needs to be paid in reinforcement. Reinforcement can be in the form of teacher praise, grades, tokens, candy, treats, etc. Every child is a little different. 

Whether we are using Discrete Trial Training, Incidental Teaching, or Fluency Instruction, the reinforcer needs to be there in the end. So firsts things first – identify reinforcers for each student. I like to post them all on a white board so my staff and I can all keep it straight. Utilize a preference assessment, work on pairing yourself as a reinforcer, use tokens, and really take the time to figure out what is a reinforcer for each student. 

Once you identify those reinforcers, — USE THEM. Every time the child gets a correct answer, engages in a correct response, or displays a new skill – it’s a fiesta in your classroom. The goal is to create the connection: I do this behavior -> something awesome happens. That something awesome is reinforcement!

Praise works as a reinforcer for many children – but not for all! For some children praise is not reinforcing. Do we just accept that and move on? Nope! Praise is important to develop into a type of reinforcement because praise is a naturally occurring reinforcer! It occurs in the real world. So for our kids that praise is not  a reinforcer – we need to work on conditioning praise. We can do this be constantly pairing praise with things that are a reinforcer. Every time you give a piece of candy, iPad, or a token – pair it with praise! Eventually you will be able to fade out the item and use only praise!

Want to learn even more about reinforcement? 

Check out my FIRST ever training video on TpT. In this training video, learn why reinforcement works, the common misconceptions related to reinforcement, and how to increase positive behaviors with students in your classroom.  I am really proud of who this video turned out! 


  1. Reinforcements for new skills work for a time with our son; then he gets tired of them and doesn’t want to work for them. I’m speaking of applying them in the home. For instance, I’ve made countless chore charts with rewards for $. They worked for a time, but they don’t work for an eternity. 🙂 Any thoughts?

  2. I routinely conduct reinforcer inventories for the clients I work with in-field, as well as teach parent training on how parents and caregivers can conduct reinforcer checks for their children at home. Since the main concept of a reinforcer is to well, be reinforcing for a kiddo, it’s important to assess often their reinforcing ability. What was highly reinforcing once, the child may no longer care for. Try placing 2-3 highly preferred items in front of your son and ask him, “What do you want to work for tonight after chores?” This works for many (not all) children as it provides the child the sense of ownership in what they want to work for. Or, if your son is higher-functioning, another option would be to introduce independence in having him vocally (and perhaps paired with a visual) state what he wants to work for. Best of luck!

  3. Sometimes we get sick of something and then it no longer works as a reinforcer. Like when we get sick of our favorite song or snack food that we eat every day. I would try switching up the reinforcers frequently and making sure when you use a token economy (chose chart) that you are continuously adding items to the reinforcer menu and making sure the system is set up in a way that he actually can gain enough points to access the reinforcers. Also make sure that when you start a chore chart he can “cash in” frequently and then fade it out. Hope this helps!

  4. Great suggestions!

  5. Hi Sasha,
    I love reading your blog and getting awesome ideas and inspiration. Do you have a preference assessment list you use? Sometimes I like to send home one with families and see what they come up with.

  6. Thanks for reading! I typically use this method (linked under MSWO) https://theautismhelper.com/preference-assessments-pairing/ and get the items through informal parent survey. I like to ask parents open ended questions bc sometimes parents have a hard time thinking of ideas as well.


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