WOW! When I posted in the Simply Special Ed Facebook Group (join here!) asking what you all wanted to know about reinforcement, preference assessments, and reinforcement schedules, you all SHOWED UP! I got tons of questions and comments about why and how to use reinforcement most effectively in your classroom. So many in fact, that Alyssa and I decided to turn this into a series of posts. This way, you will be able to find exactly what you are looking for when it comes to reinforcement.
In this post, I will be talking all about how to conduct a preference assessment to help you figure out what your student’s highest reinforcers are. We will also look at the different schedules of reinforcement to discuss how often you should be reinforcing your student with that highest reinforcer. Preference Assessments and reinforcement schedules can be tricky but you will leave this post feeling more confident! (scroll to the bottom to get access to my free preference assessment)
But first, some review.
When talking about behavior, we can look at ways to increase and maintain behavior (reinforcement!) or ways to decrease or extinguish a behavior (punishment). In order to build a contingency, we have to either add a stimulus (positive) or remove a stimulus (negative). The words positive and negative can give these contingencies a bad rep… but keep in mind, they do not relate to the behavior AT ALL. They are referring to how you as the educator are going to contrive the environment.
An example of positive reinforcement:
When a student finishes his work, he gets 5 minutes on the computer. The behavior that you are reinforcing is work completion and the stimulus you are adding is the availability of the computer. You probably use positive reinforcement in your classroom. Think token economy, first/then, behavior contracts, Class Dojo, anything where your student is earning something!
An example of negative reinforcement:
When the student is finished completing an art project, he is able to wash the paint off of his hands. Many children do not like when their hands are dirty. They may try to lick, scratch at or wipe their hands if that is the case. By allowing them to wash the paint off of their hands, you are removing the aversive stimulus (paint on hands) you are able to reinforce completing the art project.
Conducting a Preference Assessment
A preference assessment looks at stimuli to be added to the environment, or effective positive reinforcers. There are different preference assessments available online and there is no “set way” to conduct a preference assessment.
Typically, I start by observing the student and looking at the “strengths and interests” section of the student’s IEP. By observing the student in the classroom environment, you can see what they gravitate towards naturally.
Reinforcement is as unique as the student. Something that may be reinforcing to us, may not be reinforcing to them. Be sure to have a large range of options for the student to sample while doing a preference assessment.
When conducting a preference assessment, keep track of everything that is offered to the student. Keeping a consistent time limit for how long the student is able to sample each reinforcer allows you to collect accurate interest data. Typically, I give the student 5 seconds to respond to the stimulus and mark the intensity of interest. Depending on what is being offered (if it is tangible or sensory), I will give the student 1-3 minutes to interact with the potential reinforcer. For an edible, attention or escape reinforcer, I will offer it once and just note the student response.
There is no “standardized” preference assessments. See what works for you and your students. On the Simply Special Ed TpT store, you’ll find a duration based data sheet. You’ll observe the students and tally how many times they select each reinforcer in a 20 minute assessment block.
The data sheet I use is now available on the Simply Free Library! You’ll have to opt-in to emails for password access to 75+ different FREE resources!
Setting up a Preference Assessment
Here are some examples of choices you can offer a student during a preference assessment, organized by stimulus category. This is by no mean an all encompassing list!
Tangible: Legos/blocks, puzzle, stuffed animal, ball, magnets, iPad, favorite book or movie, tokens (then traded for something else)
Attention: positive praise**, class parties, visiting another classroom
Edible: small portions of preferred snacks/drinks (may not always work depending on satiation)
Sensory: tickles, squeezes, high fives, hugs, fist bumps, or my students’ personal favorite, thumb fives. (like a thumbs up but you bump fists and thumbs!)
Escape: no homework pass, noise cancelling headphones,
**Note: Be sure to test different positive praise phrases: “Good Job!” may be less effective than “Way to Go”
Once you know what reinforcers are most effective for your student, you then have to figure out how often the the target behavior needs to be reinforced.
When beginning a reinforcement procedure, it is best practice to use continuous reinforcement at the start. This means you are reinforcing every correct response or occurrence of the target behavior. Once the student begins to learn the relationship between the desired behavior and the reinforcer, you can begin to use partial reinforcement strategies.
Partial reinforcement is broken up into two different types: interval (time based) and ratio (number of occurrences based). Within interval and ratio schedules, you have fixed or variable schedules. In a fixed schedule, the rate of reinforcement stays the same. In a variable schedule, the rate of reinforcement is a varied average.
Examples of Reinforcement Schedules
Example of Fixed Ratio (FR): A student is working on a Fixed Ratio 1 schedule. After each occurrence of behavior, the child is reinforced. This is typically the first step after continuous reinforcement. A token economy typically works on a delayed FR1: the student is given a token for each occurrence of the desired behavior and then trades the tokens for a preferred reinforcer at the end of the instructional task.
Example of Fixed Interval (FI): A student is working on a Fixed Interval 2 schedule. After 2 minutes, the student is reinforced if there is no occurrence of maladaptive behavior. If there is, stop the timer and start again.
Example of Variable Ratio (VR): A student works on a Variable Ratio 4 schedule. The student is reinforced an average of every 4 occurrences of the target behavior.
Example of Variable Interval (VI): A student is working on a Variable Interval 5 schedule. After an average of 5 minutes, the student is reinforced for the target behavior. If maladaptive behavior occurs, stop the timer and begin the interval again.
You may have also heard of differential reinforcement; this refers to the intervention of changing the behavior. More on that in another post.
Determining What Schedule is Right for Your Student
If there is one thing we all know as special educators, it is that there is “no one size fits all” approach. Not every student is going to have the same reinforcer or require the same density of reinforcement. The density of reinforcement may even differ in one child based on the target behavior and antecedents for that behavior.
So, try things out. It more effective to start with a dense schedule of reinforcement (meaning LOTS of reinforcement: either continuous or FR1) and to gradually thin the reinforcement once you begin to see a behavior change, than it is start with a thin schedule of reinforcement.
If a student wants to work for something “atypical”, let them! Reinforcement only works if the student is motivated by the reinforcer. Get creative and be sure to vary the reinforcer so that the student doesn’t reach satiation. That’s why we assess lots of options during a preference assessment and when developing the reinforcement schedule!
Have questions about preference asessments or reinforcement schedules? Comment on this post!