Tag Archives: reinforcement

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.


18 Aug

Reinforcement is a key component, if not the biggest key, to behavior change procedures.  But, reinforcement is often misunderstood. Everyone has the potential to impact behavior, either knowingly or unknowingly. And, parents have an especially influential role.

First, in order to be a “reinforcer”, the item or activity has to increase the future frequency of the behavior it immediately follows. Next, there are two types of reinforcement: Positive and Negative. No, that does not equate to “good and bad”. Don’t let the terms fool you.

Positive Reinforcement is an added consequence of behavior that increases the future frequency of that behavior. (Adding something to strengthen the behavior)

  • Giving a teen $10 for every A earned on his or her report card. (You add the money in order to increase future frequency of earning As.)

Negative Reinforcement is the removal or avoidance of something that increases the future frequency of that behavior. (Removing something to strengthen the behavior)

  • Scratching your arm when it’s itching. (The scratching behavior removes the itch, thereby making you more likely to scratch future itches)

Some more common examples of Negative Reinforcement that many parents encounter:

  1. A child is given a plate of veggies. The child screams and cries, refusing to eat the vegetables. So the parent removes the plate, and the child does not have to eat them.

In this case, the child’s behavior (screaming) was negatively reinforced (via the removal of the vegetables), thereby increasing the future likelihood of screaming when given vegetables.

2. A child asks for a toy at the toy store. The parent says no, and the child begins tantruming.  The parent, tired of the child’s meltdown, gives in and buys the toy.

In this example, the parent’s behavior (buying the toy) was negatively reinforced (The aversive stimulus, the tantrum, stopped). Now, the parent may be more likely to buy the child what they ask for in the future, in order to avoid or escape the tantum.

****Here’s where it gets tricky…in the above example, there is multiple reinforcing events occuring. The child is positively reinforced for screaming (they scream, they get the toy) , while the parent is negatively reinforced for giving the toy (they give the toy, the screaming stops).

I know, it’s confusing. Plus, we are so engrained with other connotations for the words positive and negative. But just remember that positive is adding something, negative is taking something away. And in order to be reinforcement, it MUST increase the future frequency of the behavior. A “reward” is NOT the same as a reinforcer.

For more information on this topic, please visit the links below:




*All pictures found on Google Images, diagram created by me

%d bloggers like this: