“He doesn’t like reinforcers”

Parenting is hard, there are all sorts of decisions that need to be made. There are times of frustration and, most of the time, there are a lot of aspects that are completely out of your control. Parenting with Behavior Analysis doesn’t mean that the decisions are necessarily easier or that you feel (or are) in control all of the time. Rather, it means that you get to make decisions that are based in a solid foundation of methods that do work. Reinforcement falls in line, but we do need to appropriately select the reinforcers. After all, reinforcement is reinforcement only when it is reinforcing. Therefore, we should learn about assessing for preferred activities or items (aka. the preference assessment). This will help keep us from making the ultimate mistake- claiming that reinforcement doesn’t work!

Observation-based Preference Assessment

One very easy way to figure out what your child prefers is to simply observe what he chooses to engage with. When Little One has free time in the house, what does he tend to do? Does he play with cars or playdough? Does he run around pretending to be a Super Hero? Does he usually sit and look at books? If you want to be a bit more methodological about it, you can take notes and during a time where he is free to do what he wants, write down what he chooses to do or play with and how long he interacts with that item/activity. Over a couple of observations, you will see a pattern of preferences.

Parenting with preference assessments

In the sample here, we looked at the preference level for Jimmy in an observational preference assessment. This simplified example shows how you might easily track the amount of time he plays with each of three items (in the real world, you can track any item/activity your child engages with during the free-play time period). We can see that Jimmy spent the most time playing with playdough on two of the observation periods and books on the other observation period. This lets us know that playdough is likely a high preference item. Also, books and cars are likely preferences since he did choose those at times during free-play, where there were likely other choices available.

Choice-based Preference Assessment

Another easy preference assessment technique is to provide a choice of items and note which item is chosen. You can easily create a hierarchy of preferences this way. Offer two or more items (be aware that offer too many items can create difficulty, we tend to stick to between 2 and 5). The item chosen is likely to be of higher preference than the other items (at least in that moment). To ensure that you are capturing the full view, you can offer the choices again and note which item is chosen. There are two common techniques for this:

With replacement: With this style, you ‘replace’ the item chosen with the same item. For example, you offer goldfish crackers, graham crackers, pretzels, and peanuts as the choice and goldfish crackers are chosen (and eaten). You offer the choices again and include ALL of the items including goldfish again. The upside to this type is that you get to see if the initial choice continues to stay as a high preference item. The downside is you don’t get to see the hierarchy of choices.

Without replacement: The alternative is to offer the choices and NOT replace the chosen item. In the example above, on the second-choice selection, goldfish crackers would not be included. This allows you to see what else your child enjoys if goldfish is not available. This gives you a hierarchy of preference for your child.

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Alaska Step-In Autism Center

Just ask

Perhaps the easiest way to obtain an idea of preference is often the most overlooked. You know, just ask. Now sometimes this isn’t practical. The child may be too young to tell us, may not have functional communication skills yet, or maybe the child ALWAYS wants one thing when asked (ie. the IPad) and we want to expand their ‘reinforcement repertoire’. That being said, Step-In Parenting is about practical application of behavior analysis and sometimes asking your child is the most practical way to determine their preferences.

Choosing a reinforcer can seem daunting, but these preference assessments make that choice easier. Give it a try and let us know how it went!

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