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Positive Reinforcement

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Positive Reinforcement



Reinforcement is a process in which a consequence, a reinforcer, is given following a desired behavior to increase the likelihood or maintain that the behavior  under similar conditions .

How to Use:

The following steps are used in reinforcement:

1.Identify a desired behavior. Choose an observable and measurable behavior.

2.Select an effective reinforcer. Choose a reinforcer or reinforcers by observation, interview, or completing a reinforcer checklist.

3.Administer reinforcer contingent upon the desired behavior. Give the reinforcer on a predetermined schedule after the desired behavior occurs.

It should be noted that activities, foods, or items that are generally considered pleasant or enjoyable by others may not necessarily be reinforcing. That is, what serves as a reinforcer to one person may not be a reinforcer to another. Also, too frequent use of reinforcement may cause the individual to grow tired of the reinforcement and result in a loss of reinforcement effectiveness.

When to Use

Reinforcement should be used anytime you want to increase a specific behavior or maintain a behavior under similar situations is to increase the frequency of a desired behavior occurring again under similar situations.  Reinforcemnt can be used at home, school or any other environment.


Positive reinforcement refers to an increase in the future frequency of a behavior due to the addition of a stimulus following an event.

Negative reinforcement refers to an increase in the future frequency of a behavior due to the removal of a stimulus following an event.

It is important to establish the frequently of the reinforcement and choose an appropriate and systematic  schedule of reinforcement (see document)



  • Implementation Checklist

  • Types of Reinforcement Schedules

  • Research

Resource List

Autism Internet Modules. Differential Reinforce Module and Reinforcement Module: http://www.autisminternetmodules.org/

National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. Evidence Practice Brief: Reinforcement: http://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/content/reinforcement

Reinforcement Systems. Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT).

Autism Internet Modules (AIM) www.autisminternetmodules.org all online modules and free.

Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=32/.  

The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders http://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/  

Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism www.txautism.net.  


The target behavior for Susan was to learn the alphabet. In the beginning, whenever Susan identified a correct letter, the teacher gave her a small piece of cookie and praised her. Later on, the teacher still praised Susan for every correct response but gave her a small piece of cookie after three correct responses. Gradually, the teacher continued to use verbal praise for every correct response, but gave Susan a small piece of cookie a few times in an unpredictable manner. After a couple of sessions, the teacher only gave Susan verbal praise when she answered correctly.

Another example:  if a child receives a piece of chocolate when he asks for one and the frequency of “chocolate-requesting behavior” increases, the chocolate can be seen as a reinforcer that reinforces “chocolate-requesting behavior.” On the other hand, if chocolate-requesting behavior does not increase, the chocolate cannot be considered a reinforcer.

Data Collection

Preference Assessments and Reinforcer Assessments: Data collection should be used to determine high preference items and to assess if those items will function as reinforcers during daily  work and tasks.


The purpose of using reinforcement is to increase the frequency of a desired behavior occurring again under similar situations. As such, a reinforcer is the consequence of a behavior, leading to future occurrence. Positive reinforcement means the presentation of a consequence increases a behavior whereas negative reinforcement removes a negative stimulus to increase the occurrence of a behavior.





  1. Cavalari, R., Dubard, M., & Luiselli, J. (2014). Simplified habit reversal and treatment fading for chronic skin picking in an adolescent with autism. Clinical Case Studies, 13(2), 190-198.

This study evaluated the effects of a differential reinforcement procedure to decrease the skin picking of a 17-year-old female diagnosed with autism. The study took place in the school and classroom of the participant. Researchers designed a two-tiered token economy system that consisted of the participant earning tokens for either refraining from skin picking completely or ceasing the skin picking upon re-direction. Tokens could be exchanged for time with preferred activities. Results showed that the participant’s skin picking immediately began to decrease from the first baseline to intervention. Using a reversal design, the researchers successfully demonstrated that the rate of skin picking increased upon returning to baseline followed by its decrease when the intervention was re-introduced. Follow up data showed that the intervention was successfully faded and results maintained.

  1. Fisher, W., Rodriguez, N., & Owen, T. (2013). Functional assessment and treatment of perseverative speech about restricted topics in an adolescent with Asperger syndrome. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 46(1), 307-311.  

The purpose of this study was to demonstrate the effectiveness of a differential reinforcement (DR) procedure in decreasing perseverative speech and increasing appropriate on-topic conversation. The participant was a 14-year-old boy diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. The study took place in a clinical setting and a therapist working with the participant conducted the intervention. There were two DR conditions. For the first condition, DR of nonperseverative speech, the therapist provided reinforcement when the participant either stayed on the topic of his choosing or refrained from engaging in perseverative speech during the therapist’s choice (although participant could be off topic). The therapist used a green (participant’s choice) and red card (therapist choice) to indicate which schedule was in effect that session. In the next DR condition, DR of on-topic speech, reinforcement conditions were similar during the participant’s choice still, but when it was the therapist’s choice, he now only received reinforcement when the speech was both on-topic and nonperseverative. Results of a functional analysis suggested that perseverative speech was maintained by attention, therefore, when the participant did not meet the criteria in either condition, attention from the therapist was withheld until he stopped engaging in perseverative speech and/or got on topic. Results from both DR conditions in the study showed a clear relationship between the participant’s speech and the reinforcement contingencies in effect during that session. Meaning, the participant would shift his behavior depending on the contingencies in place in order to receive reinforcement. By the end of the second DR condition, the participant was remaining on topic and engaging in near zero levels of perseverative speech when talking with others.

  1. Lanovaz, M, Rapp, J, & Ferguson, S. (2013). Assessment and treatment of vocal stereotypy associated with television: A pilot study. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 46(2), 544-548.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of differential reinforcement on vocal stereotypy associated with TV watching. The participant was a 6-year-old boy diagnosed with autism. The study took place in the participant’s home. Researchers used a differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) procedure in which the participant could earn reinforcement for appropriately sitting in front of the TV when it was turned on (note: researchers had determined that stereotypy was lower when the participant was sitting, hence why they chose to reinforce this behavior). Results showed that participant engaged in higher levels of sitting and lower levels of vocal stereotypy in the DRA conditions versus baseline. These results demonstrated the effectiveness of using differential reinforcement to strengthen a desired alternative behavior.

  1. Nuernberger, J., Vargo, K., & Ringdahl, J. (2013). An application of differential reinforcement of other behavior and self-monitoring to address repetitive behavior. Journal of Development and Physical Disabilities 25, 105-117.

The purpose of this study was to demonstrate the effectiveness of a DRO procedure in decreasing repetitive behavior. The participant was a 19-year-old girl diagnosed with autism and a mild intellectual disability. She was referred for repetitive behaviors such as pulling her hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. The study took place in the rehabilitative center the participant resided. The DRO procedure entailed providing reinforcement at the end of an interval so long as the participant had not engaged in any of the repetitive behaviors listed. Using a reversal design, results showed that the repetitive behavior of the participant immediately dropped to zero from baseline to intervention. Researchers also successfully reversed the behavior to initial baseline levels and demonstrated that the behavior decreased back to zero when the intervention was re-introduced. Over the course of the study, the researchers were also successful in lengthening the time of the interval and training the participant to self-monitor her own behavior.

  1. Schmidt, J., Luiselli, J., Rue, H., & Whalley, K. (2013). Graduated exposure and positive reinforcement to overcome setting and activity avoidance in an adolescent with autism. Behavior Modification, 37(1), 128-142.

The purpose of this study was to demonstrate the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in reducing avoidant behavior associated with particular locations in the school. The participant in this study was a 16-year-old male diagnosed with autism and severe intellectual disability. The participant complied with most classroom activities but engaged in disruptive behavior when prompted to go to the music room, gymnasium, and/or exercise room of his school. The first phase of this study provided reinforcement to the participant contingent upon walking a pre-set distance from the classroom to one of the three locations. Eventually, the researchers were able to get the participant to walk to all locations without any disruptive behaviors. The second phase of the study then focused on getting the participant to stay in the locations for increasingly longer durations of time. Using the same positive reinforcement procedures in the first phase, the participant would receive access to preferred items for meeting the pre-set criterion that session. Schedules of reinforcement were thinned and faded over time until the participant eventually attended all activities in these locations with his other peers without the need for extra reinforcement.

  1. Allison, J., Wilder, D. A., Chong, I., Lugo, A., Pike, J., & Rudy, N. (2012). A comparison of differential reinforcement and noncontingent reinforcement to treat food selectivity in a child with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(3), 613-617.

This study compared differential reinforcement plus escape extinction to noncontingent reinforcement plus escape extinction to treat food selectivity exhibited by a young child with autism. The interventions were equally effective for increasing bite acceptance and decreasing problem behaviors. However, a social validity measure suggested that noncontingent reinforcement was preferred by the child's caregiver.

  1. Dickman, S. E., Bright, C. N., Montgomery, D. H., & Miguel, C. F. (2012). The effects of response interruption and redirection (RIRD) and differential reinforcement on vocal stereotypy and appropriate vocalizations. Behavioral Interventions, 27(4), 185-192.

The relation between contextually appropriate vocalizations (AV) and vocal stereotypy (VS) has yet to be established within the response interruption and redirection (RIRD) literature. RIRD may promote AV by suppressing VS and/or by functioning as incompatible responses. The occurrence of VS and AV was assessed during baseline, RIRD alone, and RIRD combined with a differential reinforcement system for AV (RIRD + DRI) for a 5-year-old child with autism. Results showed an increase in AV once RIRD was implemented and further increases in AV and decreases in stereotypy when the token system of reinforcement for AV was implemented.

  1. Donohue, M. M., Casey, L., Bicard, D. F., & Bicard, S. E. (2012). Effects of differential reinforcement of short latencies on response latency, task completion, and accuracy of an adolescent with autism. Education and Training In Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 47(1), 97-108.

This study examined the response latency, task completion, and accuracy in responding of an adolescent with ASD utilizing a changing criterion design. Reinforcement was provided only when the student answered a question or complied with an instruction accurately and within the preset criterion, which was successively and gradually reduced. Results indicated that response latency decreased from an average of 4.6 seconds down to an average of 2.4 seconds and that there was a significant decrease in no responses. Findings show that differential reinforcement of short latencies resulted in a decrease in response latency and an increase in compliance.

  1. Falcomata, T. S., Roane, H. S., Muething, C. S., Stephenson, K. M., & Ing, A. D. (2012). Functional communication training and chained schedules of reinforcement to treat challenging behavior maintained by terminations of activity interruptions. Behavior Modification, 36(5), 630-649.

In this article, the authors evaluated functional communication training (FCT) and a chained schedule of reinforcement for the treatment of challenging behavior exhibited by two individuals diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and autism, respectively. Following a functional analysis with undifferentiated results, the authors demonstrated that challenging behavior was occasioned by interruptions of ongoing activities and maintained by terminations of interruptions. Next, they demonstrated the effectiveness of a treatment consisting of FCT with a chained schedule of reinforcement. Last, they modified the chained schedule procedure to increase ease of implementation and promote toleration of activity interruptions, and academic tasks were incorporated into the treatment.

  1. Pennington, R., Strange, C., Stenhoff, D., Delano, M., & Ferguson, L. (2012). Leave the running shoes at home: Addressing elopement in the classroom. Beyond Behavior, 21(3), 3-7.

The purpose of this study was to demonstrate the effectiveness of a differential reinforcement procedure on decreasing the elopement behavior of a child in a classroom setting. The participant was a 7-year-old boy with autism. His special education teacher was trained to implement the intervention in the classroom. The hypothesized function of the participant’s elopement behavior was attention; therefore the researchers trained the teacher to use a DRA procedure to deliver attention on a variable schedule when the participant was engaged in the desired behavior of sitting in the instructional area. Elopement was ignored and/or re-directed with as little attention as possible if the participant attempted to leave the classroom. Using a withdrawal design, results showed that the elopement behavior of the participant decreased from baseline to intervention. The researchers were not successful during the withdrawal condition in getting behaviors to return to baseline levels, but overall, elopement remained low throughout the rest of the study. This study demonstrated an effective use of differential reinforcement in the treatment of elopement in the classroom setting.

  1. Pitts, L., & Dymond, S. (2012). Increasing compliance of children with autism: Effects of programmed reinforcement for high-probability requests and varied inter-instruction intervals. Research In Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 135-143.

The present study first investigated the effects of high-p request sequences, with and without programmed reinforcement, on compliance to low-p requests using a reversal design with three children with autism. Preferred stimuli were identified via formal reinforcer preference assessments, and compliance, latency to compliance, and task completion time were measured. Results demonstrated high-p request sequences were most effective in increasing compliance and reducing compliance latency and task requests. Generalization probes conducted with a second trainer indicated that compliance occurred for all but one of the participants' low-p requests. The further effects of inter-instruction intervals (10 s and 5 s) were examined using a combined alternating treatments and reversal design with one participant. Results demonstrated high-p request sequences were most effective in increasing compliance when implemented with 5 s inter-instruction intervals and with programmed reinforcement.

  1. Plavnick, J. (2012). A practical strategy for teaching a child with autism to attend to and imitate a portable video model. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 37(4), 263-270.

The purpose of this study was to demonstrate the effectiveness of prompting and reinforcement to increase the attending of a child to a video model. The participant was a 4-year-old boy diagnosed with autism. The study took place in a classroom at the participant’s school. A video model was developed as an attempt to teach the participant how to engage in a PECS exchange. Using a shaping procedure, preferred edibles were delivered contingent upon the participant looking at the video screen for a predetermined amount of time that session. The edibles were held by the video screen as a prompt for the participant to attend to the screen and would be delivered intermittently while he watched. Using a changing criterion design, results showed that the participant gradually increased the amount of time he watched the video until he could attend for the entire duration. Subsequently, as the duration of time that he watched the video increased, his imitation of the desired PECS exchange also increased. These results demonstrated that positive reinforcement could be used to shape the desired behavior of attending to the video model.

  1. Sira, B. K., & Fryling, M. J. (2012). Using peer modeling and differential reinforcement in the treatment of food selectivity. Education and Treatment of Children, 35(1), 91-100.

This study extends upon the existing research on peer modeling and differential reinforcement with a 9-year-old boy diagnosed with autism who engaged in food selectivity. Using a nonconcurrent multiple baseline design the effects of the treatment package were demonstrated across three foods. Moreover, a parent implemented phase demonstrated that the child's parent could use this package in a naturalistic manner and that treatment effects maintained at post 1-month follow-ups. Implications for future research in the area of peer-modeling and food selectivity are provided.

  1. Toussaint, K. A., & Tiger, J. H. (2012). Reducing covert self-injurious behavior maintained by automatic reinforcement through a variable momentary DRO procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(1), 179-184.

The current study evaluated the effectiveness of a variable momentary differential reinforcement contingency in the treatment of covert self-injury. Neither positive punishment nor extinction was required to produce decreased skin picking.

  1. Lang, R., Kuriakose, S., Lyons, G., Mulloy, A., Boutot, A., Britt, C., Caruthers, S., Ortega, L., O’Reilly, M., & Lancioni, G. (2011). Use of school recess time in the education and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 1296-1305.

The school recess is the subject of this collection of fifteen studies comprising 46 students with AU. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the use of the recess period to teach educational, behavioral, and social intervention interventions. Students increased their social competency.

  1. Devlin, S., Healy, O., Leader, G., & Hughes, B. M. (2011). Comparison of behavioral intervention and sensory-integration therapy in the treatment of challenging behavior. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorder, 41, 1303-1320.

The objective of the current study was to compare the effects of sensory-integration therapy (SIT) and a behavioral intervention on rates of challenging behavior (including self-injurious behavior) in four children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. For each participant, results demonstrated that the behavioral intervention was more effective than the sensory integration therapy in the treatment of challenging behavior.








The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders http://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/  (Implementation Checklist)

Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism www.txautism.net  Evidence Based Practice: Reinforcement


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