Free Operant Preference Assessment

One of the most powerful tools in establishing and maintaining a change in behavior is the use of reinforcement. Reinforcement occurs when a consequence strengthens the behavior it follows. Many studies have demonstrated that high-ranked items from stimulus preference assessments are more effective at decreasing challenging behavior and improving performance on academic tasks (Carr, Nicolson, & Higbee, 2000). Therefore, Stimulus Preference Assessments should be used to help identify possible reinforcers.

So, what is a Stimulus Preference Assessment?

A Stimulus Preference Assessment refers to a variety of procedures used to determine:

  • The stimuli that a person prefers
  • The relative preference values of those stimuli
  • The conditions under which those preferences values change

(Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007)

There are many types of preference assessments. The one we will focus on is a Free Operant Observation. With a Free Operant Observation, the individual has unrestricted access to numerous activities and items for a predetermined amount of time. All items are always within reach and never removed after engagement. There are no response requirements for the individual being observed. That is, the observer will quietly sit back and record the activities and items the individual interacts with, noting in what way they are interacting with the items, and for how long.

Free Operant Observations may be contrived or naturalistic. In a contrived Free Operant Observation, the observer sets up a predetermined number of items within sight and reach of the child. A contrived observation may be helpful if some potentially reinforcing items (e.g., electronic tablet, computer, swing, etc.) are not available. In a naturalistic Free Operant Observation, the individual can engage freely with items and activities in a familiar, everyday environment. For both types of observations, the observer watches the individual for a predetermined amount of time without engaging or interacting. The items/activities the individual approaches more often and engages with for the longest are considered the individual’s highest preferred, and the items that the individual does not approach are considered the lowest preferred. Note that it is important to perform assessments regularly because preferences may change over time.

Free Operant Observations are easy to implement and are appropriate for all children.  A Free Operant Observation may be best for individuals who engage in challenging behavior when preferred items are taken away, because during a Free Operant Observation items are never removed after selection or engagement. This type of stimulus preference assessment may be most appropriate for children who are unable to select between highly-preferred and low-preferred items. Free Operant Observation are beneficial because they may allow the observer to identify highly-preferred items or activities that are not typically thought of when brainstorming potential reinforcers. One limitation of a Free Operant Observation is that it may not provide information about a wide variety of potential reinforcers if a child always interacts with only one item. If this is the case, a different type of stimulus preference assessment should be conducted. We will talk about additional types of stimulus preference assessments in future Behavioral Briefs.

If you want to learn more about Free Operant Preference Assessment. You can now view our recorded breif on our YouTube channel! Check out our Educational Seminars and Webinars page under our Training tab on our website for upcoming webinars!