Reinforcement: Timing is everything

27 Aug

Research shows that “an imposed delay [in the delivery of reinforcement] will typically render a reinforcer less effective. The more time between the criterion meeting response, and the delivery of the reinforcer, the weaker that reinforcement relation will be.” -Iser DeLeon, PhD BCBA.

What does this mean in plain english?

When reinforcing a behavior, especially at first, it should be immediate. The longer the delay, the less effective the reinforcement. Recall that “reinforcement” is not the same as reward. In order to be a reinforcer, the item/activity/etc. has to increase the future frequency of the behavior. (Read more about reinforcement in my post here).

So when attempting to reinforce a target behavior, the sooner the better. Have the item readily available. If it’s an activity or outing a person is earning, get ready to get up and go as soon as the target behavior occurs. The longer the delay, the weaker the contingency. The child does not associate the reinforcer with the target behavior if the reinforcement is delayed too significantly. Thus, if the child does not associate the target behavior with the attempted reinforcer, they are less likely to repeat that behavior in the future.

A classic example:

Let’s say a child really loves bike rides. Riding his or her bike functions as a reinforcer. But bike rides are an activity; not something you can quickly hand a child, like a piece of candy. If you want to make doing the dishes the target behavior, reinforced by a bike ride, here are some things you’d want to consider:

  • Have the child already in the appropriate shoes, clothing, etc.
  • Have the bike already easily accessible when you go out to the yard
  • Once the last dish is cleaned, immediately take the kid outside, help them get on the bike and go!

If after the last dish was completed you had to help the kid put on socks and shoes, then get the bike out of the garage, then help with the helmet, etc….5 or 10 minutes might pass before the child actually gets on the bike! So the child would not necessarily associate doing the dishes with earning  a bike ride. Additionally, any behavior that occurs between the dish washing and the bike ride may actually be the behavior you end up reinforcing. If the child finishes the dishes, and then during putting on their shoes has a major tantrum, and then they still get the bike ride…you have would have then unwittingly reinforced the tantrum, not the dish washing behavior.

Conclusion: faster is better. The less time between the target behavior and the reinforcement, the less chance you have of mistakenly reinforcing a different behavior. And, the stronger the relationship becomes between the target behavior and the reinforcer.

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