Reinforcement is reinforcement only when it is reinforcing

This may be the most important lesson when it comes to reinforcement. Reinforcement is only reinforcement if it works. I know, you are never supposed to use the defining word in the definition. It is bad practice. However, this is really THAT important. Many times, we decide that an object or action should be reinforcing:

Pumpkin just peed in the potty for the first time EVER!!! In response, I was SO excited I jumped up and down hooting and hollering and having a potty dance just for HIM. Oddly enough, Pumpkin’s “peeing in the potty” behavior did not increase. Perhaps this ABA stuff really doesn’t work!

Let’s switch things around and reevaluate the scenario from Pumpkin’s perspective.

“What is this strange thing Mommy just sat me on? It is hard and a bit cold. Hmmm, now what is happening- that is supposed to happen in the warm confines of my diaper!!! OH MY GOSH MOMMY HAS LOST HER MIND! When I do this, mommy freaks out!” 

Advocacy Work at Step-In Autism Center
Alaska Step-In Autism Center

Okay, okay so that is a bit on the extreme side. Hopefully it helps illustrate my point. Just because we offer something which we call a reinforcer means absolutely nothing. The only way to know that the item, activity, or interaction was a reinforcer is to watch the occurrence of the behavior. Did it increase in duration, intensity, and/or frequency? If the answer is yes, it was a reinforcer- Hooray! If not, reassess your child’s preferences. Maybe a calmer, quieter approach to celebration is necessary.

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