How to Make Reinforcement Effective

Who likes hearing when they’ve doing something well?

Most individuals appreciate some form of validation when they have accomplished something. In other words, we like reinforcement. Reinforcement is a powerful tool when used correctly. It not only helps teach new behaviors, but it can also shape behaviors that are already in a person’s repertoire. There are several components that contribute to the most efficient utilization of reinforcement.

Reinforcement comes in all different forms.

It can be small and simple, huge and elaborate or somewhere in between. We could list tons of reinforcers in our personal life, but let’s keep it simple. The three main categories we’re going to break reinforcement down into include: social, activity, and tangible/physical. A social reinforcer could be thumbs up, a conversation on preferred topic, a high-five, etc. An activity could be a game on the iPad, running an errand, playing a game with a peer and so on. A tangible/physical reinforcer could be a snack, a toy, a bike ride, a drink. These are clearly just a small sample of the infinite amount of reinforcers we have access to every day. You may be wondering if these categories can overlap, of course they can. In fact, more often than not, they do!

Once reinforcement has been established, how do you make it effective? Here are a few quick pointers: make it immediate, distinct, descriptive, preferred, and varied. If a person were to come to work every day on time and find out their payday keeps getting pushed back, will they be motivated to stay at the job and continue working hard? Probably not. However, if they show up every day and work hard and get paid fairly and in a timely manner- they will continue performing in a desirable way. Knowing when, how and what you are working for can inevitably sway your motivation. On that same note, make that reinforcer worth their while. For example, an individual spent four hours cleaning their sister’s bedroom and she gave her a thumbs up. Is that worth it? For most, probably not. However, had she given her sibling $50, chances are they would do it again. Size matters! Make sure your reinforcement matches the desirable behavior you want increase.

How do you know it’s working?

Sometimes it’s as simple as getting verbal feedback. Other times, we have to assess the situation. Is the behavior that is being taught and/or shaped increasing? If so, the reinforcement is most likely working. Be careful though, this circles back to those key components- especially immediacy. Be very aware of what is happening just before you deliver that reinforcement to ensure you’re not accidentally reinforcing something that is actually happening in between the desired behavior and the delivery of the reinforcement! Tune in to our behavioral brief as it discusses these key components in a little more detail and additionally offers examples and gives opportunity for questions!

Watch the related Behavioral Brief video here.