Lesson 3 – Reinforcement

Lesson 3: How to Choose Reinforcers and Use them Effectively

What You Will Learn in This Lesson

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]In order to teach your child effectively, it’s important to have a strong foundation in basic principles of behavior science. In the previous lesson I addressed these three basic principles:

  1. Behavior is controlled by consequences
  2. We must focus on INCREASING productive behavior
  3. Behavior goals must be broken into tiny steps

In this lesson I will address the remaining two principles:

  1. Reinforcement must be timed so that the child associates it with the goal behavior
  2. Reinforcers must be actually reinforcing for the child

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How to Time Reinforcement Effectively

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]When learning a skill, immediate feedback on whether a response is correct or incorrect is essential to effective learning. B.F. Skinner describes immediate, timely feedback as absolutely crucial for achieving successful learning. Why? Because, when a child knows instantly that she did something right, she feels success! She will do that good thing again, and she will be willing to try the next step because she has a history of success. In contrast, delays in feedback lead to delays in learning. If a child is not sure, or feels uncertain, she won’t know which action was correct. She won’t feel confident when another task is presented. The delay results in confusion and dismay, which negatively affect learning. How does TAGteach deliver immediate feedback? With the “tag.” The acoustical signal marks the correct action at the exact moment the child performs it!

In a TAGteach setting, the child performs an action. If the child performs a desired action (for example, putting a puzzle piece in place, saying his name at an appropriate vocal level, or rolling a ball), the parent/instructor immediately “tags” the action with a tagger (the key acoustical signal in TAGteach) and follows up with a reinforcer (a treat or reward to the child’s liking). Since the child receives the acoustical feedback (the “tag”) at the split second she performs the action, she knows exactly what she did that is right! She can easily associate the tag and reinforcement with the behavior she just performed. This is exhilarating for any child, but especially a child with autism. The tag signals success! “Yes, you did it!” She feels happy, confident, ready to repeat that great action, and emotionally ready for the next step.

Here is a video that illustrates this point. This is a child with Down Syndrome who has some language, but the communication with her is mostly via the tag sound. The tag comes immediately as she performs the desired behavior and she quickly gains confidence. Notice how afraid she is to toss the ribbon, she gets hopelessly behind in the routine and then just passes from one Here is a video that illustrates this point. This is a girl with Down Syndrome who is trying to do a ribbon toss in an adapted gymnastics class. She has some language, but the communication used to teach her the “toss” is mostly via the tag sound. Notice how afraid she is, in the beginning, to toss the ribbon. She falls hopelessly behind in the routine and then just passes the ribbon from one hand to the other. The task is then broken down for her. The teacher gives her a stick without the ribbon, and asks her to practice simply tossing the stick from one hand. The tag comes immediately as she performs the desired behavior and she quickly gains confidence. She practices tossing the stick from one hand, tossing the stick from one hand towards her other hand, then tossing the stick with one hand and catching it with the other hand. After a few minutes of tagging, her confidence is back! By the end, she is able to toss the stick, with ribbon attached, into the air with one hand and catch it with the other hand. The tag point in this case was never the final goal of “toss the ribbon,” because we knew she had trouble with that, and we didn’t want her to have the opportunity to fail. By simplifying the task and practicing the components, she was able to achieve the final goal quickly and without frustration.

Let’s remember too that our kids with autism have sensory issues and may have problems understanding spoken language. Since the tag is a quick, consistent sound that has only one message—“Yes, You’re right!” it not only provides immediate feedback to the learner, but does so in a way that gets around the sensory and communication problems of children with autism. We most commonly use a box clicker to make the tag sound, but there are certainly other options to explore, including non-sound markers such as a flash of light or a tap on the shoulder. Here is an article that discusses the different types of possible markers: Let’s remember too that our kids with autism have sensory issues and may have problems understanding spoken language. Since the tag is a quick, consistent sound that has only one message—“Yes, You’re right!” it not only provides immediate feedback to the learner, but does so in a way that gets around the sensory and communication problems of children with autism. We most commonly use a box clicker to make the tag sound, but there are certainly other options to explore, including non-sound markers such as a flash of light or a tap on the shoulder. Here is an article that discusses the different types of possible markers: http://tagteach.blogspot.ca/2010/02/different-sounds-of-tagging.html

Some people like to use a verbal marker, such as “yes” or “good” and this can be a good option when you are somewhere that using a tagger is not appropriate. In a learning situation where you really need precision, some people like to use a verbal marker, such as “yes” or “good” and this can be a good option when you are someplace where using a tagger is not appropriate. In a learning situation where you really need precision, consistency and clarity, I really recommend that you use a sound marker for the tag. Here is a link to an article that talks about using words versus using the tag sound to mark success: http://tagteach.blogspot.ca/2014/03/using-verbal-marker-to-signal-success.html Watch this video of child athletes explaining why they like to learn with the tag sound:

Here is 16-year old Thomas, telling us what he thinks of learning with TAGteach. Thomas is a student in an alternative high school in a classroom for kids with a wide range of abilities. Thomas and his classmates (most of whom are neurotypical and typically “cool” teenagers) think it’s cool to learn and be taught with TAGteach.

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How to Choose Reinforcers That Work

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]TAGteach is uniquely effective in marking a specific behavior on time, as mentioned above. After “tagging” a behavior, the next step is to give a “reinforcer” to a child.

There are two points to remember about reinforcers. (1) The reinforcer is a consequence that increases the likelihood that the child will perform that behavior again. Thus, (2) the reinforcer must be pleasing to that individual child. Let’s focus on this last point, the value of the reinforcer.

Parents, teachers and therapists should seek out reinforcers that their children/students value. The easiest way to come up with a list of reinforcers is to observe the child in multiple settings. What does the child like to eat, touch, play with, listen to, or enjoy going to (movies, the park, the pool, the playground)? What toys does he or she enjoy: puzzles, sensory toys (with soft, squishy, squeezy, furry, bumpy surfaces), crafts, blocks, Legos, stacking cups, or games. Also, reinforcers may change with time, so it’s important to keep up with the child’s interests. An internet search for “reinforcers for ABA” yields dozens of articles with clever ideas – far too many to list here! An important part of any TAGteach learning plan is to seek out and use the best possible reinforcers for a particular child.

A great way to find out what is reinforcing for your child, especially older children, is to ask them! Many people don’t think of this, but it is the simplest way to make sure they are getting what is truly reinforcing. Here is an article in which kids talk about reinforcement and what works for them:

http://tagteach.blogspot.ca/2009/08/show-em-money.html

Another way to find out what your child likes best is to conduct a preferences assessment. Here is a video that explains how to do that: 

 

A helpful point to keep in mind is that if you offer your child an item as a reinforcer, and you don’t see the desired behavior increasing, then the reinforcer is no longer effective. It’s time to look for something new, something that your child will not only like, but will work for.

Using food treats is often the easiest and fastest way to get started. It makes a fast and strong impression on the child and you can get behavior going very quickly with special treats. It is important however to try to introduce other types of reinforcers once you and your child are having fun and learning with TAGteach. In my story yesterday about Tink, we read that her dad used gentle touches with a soft stuffed animal as reinforcer. Here is another story from Seany about Tink, in which he uses other non-food reinforcers to teach Tink to co-operate with medically necessary (therefore unavoidable) blood tests:

http://autismchaostocalm.com/getting-started/tink-rocked-her-blood-tests/

You may notice in many of the TAGteach videos there is no tangible reinforcer given to the child. In some of these cases the tag sound itself is the reinforcer. The child has learned that the tag is the sound of success. She knows it means that she has got it right and is progressing. In the video with the ribbon toss, this was the case. No additional treat or praise is required. In some cases where you don’t see a reinforcer being given to the child after the tag, the child is counting up the tags and will trade them in for something later. You must be prepared to be flexible with reinforcers as you are flexible in your overall teaching plan. Children are all different and their preferences can change from day to day. Their behavior will always tell you what is working, however, so be a great observer and you will know exactly how to adjust to suit your child.[/text_block]

Questions?

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]If you have any questions or any comments about what I have discussed here or any requests for me to cover other topics related to TAGteach and teaching functional behaviors please send me an email to martha@tagteach.com.

I’d love to hear about how you made out with the activities I suggested here.[/text_block]

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