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To Reinforce or Not to Reinforce…That is the Question!

by Dr. Cathy Williams

Reinforcement involves the presentation or removal of a stimulus following a behavior which increases the likelihood that the behavior will increase or be maintained. It is used to teach new skills and desired behaviors (Alberto & Troutman, 2013). Reinforcement has a strong research base and is one of the 28 evidence-based practices currently identified as effective for teaching students with autism (AFIRM, 2015) because…it works!

Occasionally I hear a teacher say, "I don't believe in using reinforcement." There are usually two arguments against the use of reinforcement:

1) "It's bribery." While we are using students' interests and preferences to encourage desired behavior, the use of reinforcement is not the same as bribery. Bribery is done to encourage somebody to do something they would not normally do for OUR benefit. While changing challenging behaviors to more desirable behaviors does benefit us as teachers, the point of using reinforcement is to teach the students skills and behaviors that will benefit THEM.

2) "They shouldn't need reinforcement; they should be intrinsically motivated." When I hear this argument, I often explain that, while I love my job, I go to work because I receive a paycheck every two weeks. If my employer stopped giving me a paycheck every two weeks, I would probably stop going to work. Here's another example...remember back to when you were a child...during dinner when you just couldn't wait for a bite of that delicious dessert that was waiting, did your mother ever say to you, "Eat your green beans and then you can have dessert?" Mine did!

We all use reinforcement to increase desired behaviors…with our students, with our own children, with our spouses, and even with our pets! Furthermore, our own behaviors that have increased have done so because they were reinforced. Sometimes, new skills and behaviors are difficult for our students, and they might require a little extra motivation. Reinforcement is a very powerful tool that makes learning enjoyable for students and results in lasting behavior change.

To use reinforcement effectively, remember these three terms (Alberto & Troutman, 2013):

Contingent: Reinforcers must be delivered contingently upon the demonstration of the desired behavior. In other words, it must be clear to the student that they are earning reinforcement because of something specific they did. It is helpful to say something like, “You are sitting in your chair. Nice job!” as you deliver the reinforcer. The use of picture behavior cues is also helpful. You can point to the picture representing the desired behavior as you deliver the reinforcer to show students why they are receiving it.

Immediate: Reinforcers must be delivered immediately after the student demonstrates the desired behavior. If there is a delay in the delivery, the desired behavior might not be strengthened. You also run the risk of accidentally reinforcing other behaviors if the delivery of the reinforcer is delayed.

Varied: Provide students with a variety of reinforcers. A preference assessment is a great way to identify things that might be reinforcing to students. By providing a variety of reinforcers, you will avoid satiation…the student getting so much of a reinforcer that it no longer has value. You might be thinking, “My students love the computer and will always choose this as a reinforcer. They never get tired of it.” But what if the computer is not available? What if the internet is down? It is important that we have identified multiple reinforcers to support behavior…just in case!

Reinforcement is a powerful tool to keep on your tool belt. So to answer the question, “To Reinforce or Not to Reinforce,” I say, “Reinforce! Reinforce! And reinforce some more!”


AFIRM Team. (2015). Reinforcement. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina. Retrieved from

Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (2013). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (9th ed.). Upper Saddle Ridge, NJ: Pearson.

*Cathy Williams, Ph.D., is an Education Specialist at Region 4 Education Service Center in Houston, Texas. She has served students with autism and their families as a special education teacher and consultant. Cathy has over 20 years of experience in the field of special education, specializing in the instruction and behavior support of students with autism.