What Is Positive Reinforcement?
Adopting new habits into our daily lives typically requires the use of reinforcements. Someone attempting to eat healthier, for example, might reinforce this desire by packing healthy meals and snacks when they leave the house. The way you reinforce these attempts to change behavior matters, and can sometimes be the difference between success and failure.
Positive reinforcement is the method of introducing positive reinforcers as rewards for desirable behaviors. This method of reinforcement is especially useful when working with children both with and without special considerations such as autism, but can also be used to help adults make changes in their lives, too.
A Brief History of the Use of Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement was a development made over a long period of time rather than an overnight experiment. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, also known as the “Father of Operant Conditioning”, is responsible for pioneering this reinforcement method. Skinner believed that reinforcing behavior was an effective way of encouraging repeat behavior. More specifically, he believed in awarding individuals with attention, praise, and rewards that they want.
In 1948, Skinner took these beliefs and created what is known as the “Skinner Box”. The box was a puzzle of sorts that attempted to guide the participants (typically rats and mice, but sometimes other animals) to repeat behavior by offering them instant reinforcement. This was done primarily by giving the animals food or, in a few notable instances, even cocaine, as rewards when they pressed a specific lever or button. This allowed scientists to study how operant conditioning works inside a heavily controlled environment.
Ever since it first drew attention in the 1940s, positive reinforcement is something that has quickly become pervasive in psychology. From group sessions to individual workshops and everything in between, positive reinforcement is used as a tool in many areas of life.
How Positive Reinforcement is Used Today
Today, positive reinforcement is used by professionals and laypeople alike. Chances are good that you have firsthand experience with this technique, even if you don’t know it yet! Have you ever used the promise of something good to help you through something you really don’t want to do?
Parents, in particular, often utilize positive reinforcement intervention with their children. Teachers use components of it in their classroom to encourage students to do their work and homework, and employees often use components of it to encourage employees to improve productivity. Even clinicians use components of positive reinforcement to help their clients achieve change in their health routines.
There are a few aspects that need to be present when using positive reinforcement-based strategies. The most important of them is a reward schedule, and there are five to choose from:
- Continuous schedule
- Fixed ratio
- Fixed interval
- Variable ratio
- Variable interval
Of these, continuous schedule is probably the most difficult. People using this schedule must see their behavior reinforced after every occurrence. It is incredibly difficult to be present for students, patients, and clients at all times, of course, leading to inconsistent results.
Fixed ratio and fixed interval schedules are the same type of approach. Behavior is rewarded after a set number of occurrences (fixed ratio) or time (fixed interval). Finally, variable ratio and interval involve rewarding behavior on a varying schedule. A variable interval schedule, for example, might see behavior rewarded after two times for one day, then three the next, then back to two.
Why is positive reinforcement still used?
Using the behavior/reward pattern, positive reinforcement helps people learn new skills and coping mechanisms to arrive at better outcomes. They help their patients set a realistic goal, come up with tasks that need to be completed along the way, and work with them as they practice different behaviors and habits until they are second nature to them.
You might be most aware of positive reinforcement as it relates to applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, a technique especially helpful for patients struggling with autism. Let’s take a closer look at the ways positive reinforcement helps students achieve their goals.
Positive reinforcement in ABA therapy
What is ABA?
ABA is a type of therapy that focuses on the science of behavior and learning. It is especially helpful for understanding:
- The process of learning
- How skills develop
- How the environment affects behavior
- How behavior works
More specifically, behavior analysis is often used in treating autism spectrum disorder. ABA has been shown to help some learners adopt social skills, language skills, and learn to have interactions with many different kinds of people, from parents to teachers to students. It is not the right fit for everyone, but for many, ABA is the connection they need to the outside world.
What are the positives and negatives of ABA therapy?
ABA therapy has been a routine treatment for people with autism for years, and it has a variety of research-backed benefits to offer. It also has some downsides to keep in mind when deciding if this is the right form of therapy for your needs.
First, let’s talk about the positives. For the last 40 years, a growing body of research has explored everything that ABA therapy offers students. Many learners are able to complete activities and perform tasks they couldn’t before the therapy, including daily chores, exercising gross motor skills, and practicing hygiene skills. Relationship-building, both at home as well as in the broader community, is another life-changing skill that ABA can teach.
There are a few negatives to consider here, too. The most commonly referenced is the amount of time it can take. Behavior change doesn’t happen overnight. It often requires years of teaching before the program yields the right result. With that said, there are a few things parents can do to help reinforce target behavior at home.
How does ABA therapy use positive reinforcement?
In ABA therapy, positive reinforcement is one of the main ways new behavior and skills are taught. The learner in question will be introduced to a stimulus immediately after a particular behavior. Over time, the likelihood of the behavior becoming more natural and experiencing increased use in practical application at home.
Why is positive reinforcement considered a hallmark of ABA?
Positive reinforcement is often considered a “hallmark” of ABA therapy. You might have already come to this conclusion on your own, but it is a common practice because it works. It helps students adopt new behavior and learn important skills, including social interaction.
Who provides ABA services?
While there are a number of providers who provide ABA therapy, the most common of them include:
- Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs)
- Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs)
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs)
You might also hear ABA professionals referred to as “registered behavior technicians”.
Is ABA covered by insurance?
ABA therapy is sometimes covered by insurance, although there are often restrictions on the frequency and duration of the sessions. Your provider should be able to help you navigate your policy and maintain clear communication about increasing costs or unexpected expenses.
Where do I find ABA services?
There are a few different options when it comes to locating ABA services. If your insurance covers the treatment, they will likely have a therapist in mind. If they don’t, or if you are in a position to pay out-of-pocket, you might consider looking at university programs as well as private practices. Ask your primary care provider for more information about local resources.
What questions should I ask?
Finding ABA services is only part of the battle. Before you sign your child up, approach the provider with a set of questions. Inquire about training policies and whether your child will be seen by a BCBA, a trained therapist, or someone else entirely. Will your child take part in a group class or a one-on-one session? Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s your job to find out as much about these providers as possible.