ABA - Basics of Positive Reinforcement

Father And Daughter Cheering during playing game on tablet

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement, in its simplest term, is an event which strengthens or increases the probability of a specific response. After a behavior occurs, something given that increases the likelihood that this behavior will occur again.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Your partner throws the trash without you asking. You give them a big kiss and thank them for helping. This should improve your partner throwing out the trash more often.

At work, you exceed this month's sales quota, so your boss gives you a bonus. Your boss has rewarded your hard work, and you are more likely to increase sales from now on.

But wait, is giving or adding something always positive reinforcement? The key factor is if they want the reinforcement: 

Jake does not like physical affection very much. His mom noticed that he cleaned his room without being asked, and it thrills her! She tickles and hug him, because she wants to give him a reward for doing his chore, but Jake protests and tries to pull away.

Is Jake more likely to clean his room again? Has he received positive reinforcement? Since he does not like physical affection, and he was trying to escape his mom’s tickles and hugs, the answer is, “probably not”.  (The chances that he would clean his room again may have even decreased, in which case the affection acted as a punisher.)

Key things to remember when giving positive reinforcement:

  • Reinforcement is most effective when it occurs immediately after the behavior.
  • Give something that is truly reinforcing to the individual.
  • What is reinforcing to someone can change from day to-day, or even minute to minute? Always consider whether the person wants to receive this reward or reinforcer. (Are they hungry? Full? Tired?)
  • Only use positive reinforcement for behaviors you want to increase. For example, when a child misbehaves in a store, some parents might give them extra attention or even buy the child a toy. The child quickly learns that misbehaving gets them what they want.
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