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Learning Centre

Module 2: Increasing Behaviours Using Reinforcement

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There are lots of things in our environment (stimuli) that can affect our behaviour and we may do things more or less often depending on certain things or people around us. Events that occur before (antecedents) and after behaviour (consequences) have a big impact on the probability of those behaviours happening again. Positive reinforcement is when the probability of a behaviour occurring again increases because the individual was provided a reinforcer or reward right after the behaviour occurred. Let’s look at a few examples.

Suppose you have a young boy who is told that he cannot have dessert because he did not eat his dinner. The boy begins to cry. The parents feel bad and give him ice cream as dessert. The following night the boy cries again when he is told that he can’t have dessert. This is example of positive reinforcement. The child is told he can’t have dessert (antecedent), he cries (behaviour) and he is given ice cream (reinforcer/reward) as a consequence. The crying occurred again the following night, so we know that reinforcement occurred. We can only say that reinforcement occurred if the behaviour is strengthened and happens again.

Let’s consider another example. You have a young girl who decides to help her younger brother put on his coat. Dad comes in and gives her a big hug telling her “What a great big sister you are.” The next time they go out, the little girl rushes to help her little brother get his coat on. Can you identity the behaviour and reinforcer?

Reinforcers can be anything that increases the probability of a behaviour happening again. They’re usually things that we like, but just because we like something, doesn’t mean it will necessarily act as a reinforcer. It’s important to remember that in order for a reinforcer to be effective, it should be delivered immediately following the behaviour and it should encourage the behaviour to happen again.

Some examples of reinforcers could include praise from a teacher, parent or caregiver, a compliment from a friend or loved one, physical contact like a hug or high five, a preferred activity like time in the pool, time on the computer or edibles (chips, pieces of fruit, chocolates, etc.). Really, reinforcers can be anything that increases behaviour, but they should be age appropriate and individualized.

Using positive reinforcement can increase desirable behaviours or undesirable behaviours, so you need to think about what you’re providing an individual after behaviours occur as you could be accidentally increasing undesirable behaviours.

Another way that behaviours increase is through the use of negative reinforcement. This is when behaviour increases because of the removal or avoidance of a stimulus that is considered unpleasant by the individual. Let’s consider an example. An individual scratches his arm (behaviour) repeatedly because it relieves / or helps him escape an itch he has. The more he scratches, the more he feels the relief from the itch.
Let’s look at one more example. A young child is asked to do a math test. As soon as he is given the test, he tries to do the test but is unable to answer the questions. He then begins to hit his teacher or educational assistant. The teacher asks him to leave the classroom. The following day when it’s time to write the test, he starts to hit his EA again. Once again, negative reinforcement occurred here. The behaviour of hitting increased because of the removal of the unpleasant stimulus.

As mentioned earlier, challenging behaviours usually increase because they work for the individual and serve a function. Usually behaviours occur because:

a) Something is being provided after the behaviour occurs (e.g., attention from someone or a preferred item) or

b) Something is being removed after the behaviour occurs (e.g., a demand or task is removed, an unpleasant stimuli is removed).

In order to understand the challenging behaviour, sometimes we need to ask ourselves “what are they trying to say to us?” Remember, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement can cause an increase in desirable or undesirable behaviours. So when we are trying to figure out why challenging behaviours are occurring, we need to figure out the reinforcer/reward is and what the individual is getting out of the challenging behaviour.