Applied Behavior Analysis: Using Reinforcements to Effect Changes in Behavior

The first principle is social reinforcement-access to attention, praise, physical contact, or just being nearby-physical proximity. This kind of reinforcement serves as a powerful motivator for many people to change or maintain a given behavior. Such reinforcement can come from a variety of people: children, adults, familiar individuals, or in some cases, strangers.

The second principle is escape reinforcement. It is a pleasant thing to escape from situations or tasks one finds unpleasant. Not having to perform that task or live through that situation, then, becomes a powerful reinforcement to help people change their behavior.

The third principle is object reinforcement. Many people respond to tangible rewards. Favorite foods or beverages, toys, clothing, stickers, or other loved objects can provide needed reinforcement for many people to help them change their behavior. Although this reinforcement is indeed powerful for many people, it can also lead to dependency on the reinforcement. Used properly, though, object reinforcement can promote generalization by gradually fading the reinforcement away.

The fourth principle is sensory reinforcement. Flashing lights, sounds, smells, and things that are pleasant to touch can also provide effective reinforcement for some people. Many children who have autism are very receptive to these types of reinforcements.

When parents, teachers, or others use these principles to help reinforce a given behavior, they must take care to use them in an appropriate manner. If they do not, the exact opposite behavior might occur.

If a child dislikes doing homework so much that she has frequent temper tantrums when she must do her schoolwork, a mother may decide to reward the child for doing her homework with her favorite ice cream. Yet the mother also gives the child a five-minute break as a time out every time she has a tantrum.

The child, seeing that she gets out of doing her homework every time she has a tantrum, will likely have more frequent tantrums. The promised ice cream is not as powerful a reinforcement to the child as the break-the escape reinforcement.

Instead of the ice cream, then, the mother needs to change her tactics. She can instead reward her child with a break for completing a set amount of homework, rather than giving her a break every time she has a tantrum. Over time, the tantrums will decrease and more homework will get finished, since the break is a more powerful reinforcement for this child than the ice cream. Using the best reinforcement for each situation will better help change the behavior to the more desired outcome.