Thursday, October 10, 2013

PREVENTING Problem Behavior: Reinforcement Systems

 This week, I am discussing antecedent interventions.  These are strategies you can use to prevent problem behaviors from occurring in your classroom.  Check out my posts on this topic all week long! Today, I will be talking about Reinforcement systems!

Even though reinforcement occurs after a behavior occurs (a consequence), setting up a reinforcement system can be a preventative measure for problem behavior.  Most often, I use an "I am working for" card with my students.  They earn stars as they engage in appropriate behaviors.  When they earn all of their stars (the number of stars can vary based on the child), they earn their chosen preferred item or activity.

To make this easy and convenient,  I have the stars and pictures of the child's preferred items velcroed to the back of the card.

A lot of our students do not respond to reinforcers that may work with typically developing students.  What does this mean?  Well, praise may not work.  Instead, kids may be reinforced by playing alone with a little strip of paper or a straw; 1 skittle or Cheetoh may be way more reinforcing than my smiles or approval.  First of all, conduct a preference assessment (see this post for more info) to determine the items your student prefers. 

 Next, there is a way to work on making praise, smiles, and approval more reinforcing.  When you are delivering those items that actually act as a reinforcers (skittles, paper strips, straws, etc.), pair them with your praise and smiles.  Eventually, students will associate praise/smiles with their reinforcers, and your praise may actually begin to work as a reinforcer on its own!  I had a student who would scream (and I mean SCREAM) random phrases whenever I praised him.  So, I started slowly sliding a skittle toward him when he was on task.  Then, after a few times, I would quietly say good job while delivering the candy.  I slowly increased my volume to a normal tone, and eventually, I barely had to use candy at all.  He now seems to respond to praise as a positive thing as opposed to something aversive.

An antecedent intervention related to reinforcement is called Noncontingent Reinforcement (or NCR).  For this type of intervention, you must know the function of the child's behavior (which brings us back to my first post in this series).  The idea behind NCR, is that you offer up the desired type of reinforcement for FREE so that the kid gets satiated on it and doesn't have to engage in the problem behavior to access it.  This is delivered on a  time based schedule (i.e. 1 time per minute or 1 time per 5-minutes).  Then, you slowly fade the time longer and longer until you are at a more naturally occurring schedule.

Here's an example.  Say you have a student who engages in screaming to get attention about 1 time every 5 minutes (according to your baseline data).  Well, for NCR, you would provide non contingent attention about every 4 minutes.  That means, you would go over to that student every 4 minutes and give them FREE attention.  They don't need to do anything to get attention.  You probably don't want to give it to them if they are engaging in a totally inappropriate behavior, but in general, you deliver the reinforcement independent of the behavior occurring at that moment.

Some other reinforcement systems you could utilize would be:
1) Token economy:  students earn points throughout the day for appropriate behavior that they turn in (at the end of the day/week) to "buy" reinforcers from a class store.

2) First, Then Card:  similar to an "I am working for" and kind of a mini "schedule," this card allows kids to see that when they finish a certain activity, they will be able to engage in a preferred activity.  These can be good to have at a station as a reminder especially when your students' schedules are too big or bulky to keep with them at all times.

3.)  Good behavior game: You come up with a list of rules for the kids to follow (the length of the list can vary depending on the ability levels of your students).  Some common rules we use are raise your hand/no shout outs, stay in seat, keep your hands to yourself.  On the board you make a T-chart with "kids" on one side and "teacher" on the other.  As you conduct your lesson, every time you see a child following the rules, the kids get a point.  Every time you se a child NOT following the rules, the teacher gets a point.  For some students "winning/beating the teacher" may be reinforcing.  However, for others, you may need to give an extra break or access to a preferred item.  

Again, I am interested in what you guys are doing in your classroom as far as reinforcement systems?  Please leave a comment and let me know!  And don't forgot to stop by tomorrow for my final day of strategies for Preventing Problem Behavior.  Lots of ideas on teaching communication as a replacement behavior as well as some other easy-to-implement ideas!


  1. We have a student in my class who loves Justin Beiber. She earns pieces to a Justin Bieber puzzle we created and when she fills the puzzle she gets a picture of Justin Bieber that she can add to her scrapbook. This is a child we have significant difficulties with. It's a new strategy we are trying and she seemed very excited by it.

  2. Thank you for this fabulous post! I have worked with students with behavioral difficulties for years, but it is always helpful to re-read these important concepts! Thank you :)

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