Reinforcement didn’t work…

To say ‘reinforcement didn’t work’ doesn’t make sense, if it didn’t increase the future likelihood of a behaviour it wasn’t reinforcement in the first place.

Reinforcement: anything that increases the future frequency of a behaviour.

For consultants and therapists, reinforcement is one of the biggest tools in our box. It will make sessions much more effective, and for parents can make life much easier.

Reinforcement is a consequence, something delivered after a behaviour. We reinforce behaviour, not people. For example, to say
‘I reinforced James for writing a cracking blog post’ would be wrong, we should say ‘I reinforced James’ blog writing behaviour’, and if you wanted to you could add the cracking bit after.

Dispicable me chart copy
Minions tick chart

We should heavily integrate reinforcement with our teaching, it really is so important for the acquisition of new skills. BUT, it has to be used correctly. Firstly, identifying potent
reinforcers. Secondly, reinforce appropriate behaviours. As much as we want to reinforce
socially significant behaviours, I commonly see problem behaviours accessing reinforcement.
Here’s a couple of examples of appropriate and inappropriate reinforcement;

  • I tell a joke, you laugh, I am more likely to tell that joke again – your laughing was reinforcement for my joke telling behaviour.
  • A therapist places a demand on a learner, the learner flops to the floor, the demand is removed, the learner is more likely to flop when a demand is presented – removal of a demand reinforced flopping behaviour.
  • A therapist asks the learner to wave, the learner waves, a preferred toy is presented, the learner is more likely to wave when asked in the future – the toy reinforced the learners waving behaviour.


Reinforcement can be positive or negative; this doesn’t mean bad or good. Positive reinforcement is the addition of something to increase the future likelihood of behaviour – think reward (e.g. getting tickled). Negative reinforcement is the removal of something to increase future likelihood of a behaviour – think relief (e.g. taking paracetemol to remove a headache increases the future likelihood of taking paracetemol when you have a headache).


I will always strive to teach learners through positive reinforcement, rather than negative reinforcement. If you’re learner is answering demands and then running away from you, then negative reinforcement is likely in play. When you’re learner is coming back for more, you know you’re smashing it!


I’ve found that a common problem with reinforcement is people thinking that what they’re delivering should be reinforcing, but it isn’t actually serving that function. Mind sets such as ‘all kids like sweets’, or ‘who doesn’t like playdoh?’, lead to ineffective attempts at reinforcement.


Something else which often happens is that people say ‘well they sat there for ages playing with it, it must be reinforcing’, again not always true. It may be that the learner is happy to have the item, but not to the extent which they are willing to emit an effortful response for it. Accepting something for ‘free’ doesn’t mean it will be a reinforcer. An example; I offer you £10 for free, you’d probably take it, but if I said clean my football boots after every game for a year, the £10 may loose it’s relative value altogether. 


Being too conventional can sometimes hold people back. Here are 6 good pointers to help identify reinforcers:

outside box
Think outside the box!
  1. Think outside the box
  2. Relax and have fun
  3. Be a kid
  4. Think about how your learner likes things, not how you like them
  5. Follow the learners motivation
  6. Be determined, don’t get disheartened!


I think the key is not letting yourself get complacent, it can be tough sometimes, getting in to routines, using the same items, especially if you’ve worked with the learner for a long time, but challenge yourself to constantly find new reinforcers, and fade it out where appropriate.

A few key things to consider when delivering reinforcement;

  1. Immediacy – deliver it as soon after the target behaviour as you can
  2. Magnitude – how much will you deliver (5 seconds on the iPad vs 30 seconds on the iPad, 1 sweet vs 3 sweets, a tickle vs a tickle, bouncy ball, and bubbles).
  3. Follow the learners’ motivation
  4. Reinforce behaviours, not learners
  5. Reinforce appropriate behaviours


Our goal is to equip learners with the skills they need to be an independent learner. In order to do this, it’s likely we’ll have to fade reinforcement over time, so that learning continues through naturally occurring reinforcement (e.g. gold stars, getting 10/10, social praise, merits, house points). This has to be done systematically and monitored carefully.


Sometimes we work with learners who make it easy for us, who already have a range of established reinforcers, and even love social praise. But others make us work for it, not liking much, and certainly not making it obvious what they do like. It’s up to us to step up and find out what they like, constantly analysing, trying everything and anything in all possible ways, and trying to build motivation.


All of these things may be obvious, and you may say its ‘common sense’, but this can be misused quite often. It is sense, but it’s not always common sense. Effective therapists and consultants will constantly be analysing reinforcement. It really is so important.


(Check out Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2014 for more about reinforcement)

What is VB?

So, another abbreviation – VB, what is that? Is it still ABA? How is it different?

VB (also known as VBA, AVB, ABA/VB) stands for verbal behaviour, and it refers to B.F. Skinners analysis of verbal behaviour. It’s all I’ve ever done, so I’m a big fan. Like my previous post, this is a big topic to cover, but hopefully this will give you a brief idea of what it entails.

You don’t do ABA or VB, it’s an additional analysis, so you would use all of the concepts and principles that ABA encompasses, and in addition to that you would use the analysis of verbal behaviour.



B.F Skinner is a top man in the field of ABA, he bought operant conditioning to the table and dedicated a lot of work to defining the process. B.F Skinner took over 20 years to write his book ‘Verbal Behaviour’. If you want to have a little read about his work, click here.



Consultants that use the analysis of verbal behaviour prioritise the function of language, rather than the structure. So what does that mean? Well, the function of language would be why someone is doing/saying something, and the structure would refer to how it is presented (sentence structure).

Verbal behaviour is probably the most socially significant of all behaviour (remember the
ultimate aim of ABA‘to increase socially significant behaviours’). Typically, a programme which uses the analysis of verbal behaviour will prioritise manding (requesting), as teaching learners to be able to request their favourite things, and access their environment is very important.

Verbal behaviour isn’t just speaking. I would refer to Drinkspeaking as vocal behaviour. Verbal behaviour can be what people say, gesture, sign, or write. For example, saying ‘drink’, writing ‘drink’, signing ‘drink’, or pointing to a drink, are all forms of verbal behaviour. All verbal behaviour must be socially mediated (someone else must be there). For this reason, getting up and getting a drink when you’re by yourself would not be regarded as verbal behaviour.


An ABA programme that uses the analysis of verbal behaviour will break down language in to operants. These are the units of language that Skinner defined in his book, Verbal Behaviour (1957). We (followers of the analysis of verbal behaviour) don’t assume that just because a learner can say ‘dog’when they see a dog, it means they can answer a question such as ‘tell me an animal that barks’.VerbalBehavior

The verbal operants are independent of each other, and each have an independent process of learning. We’ll try to make sure that when a target is being taught, such as ‘dog’, that we target it across each verbal operant, so that the learner can label a dog, find a dog, match a picture of a dog, answer questions about dogs etc, to ensure they are fluent across all areas, and understand what they are saying (for the professionals reading this, I’m aware that Skinner didn’t define visual and receptive as verbal operants).


The primary verbal operants are:

  • Mand
  • Tact
  • Intraverbal
  • Duplic (imitation, echoic)
  • Textual (reading, dictation)

I’ll post a more in depth explanation of the verbal operants somewhere down the line.

Logistics of a programme that uses the analysis of VB – they will often involve the following effective teaching procedures,

  • Identifying competing reinforcers
  • Pairing
  • Fading in demands
  • Errorless teaching
  • Task variation
  • Fast pace of instruction
  • Intersperse easy and hard instructions

Programmes are often split between natural environment teaching – NET (through play etc) and DTI (discrete trial instruction, or ‘table work’, ITT (intensive table teaching)). NET will focus on generalising skills to everyday situations; there’s no point in teaching
a learner that a picture of a car is a car, if they can’t tell you a toy car is a car during play.


DTI is intense teaching, which focuses on teaching a few new targets several times, whilst maintaining previously mastered skills. I’ll upload a video at some point. Programmes are at most 50:50 (NET:DTI), but with earlier learners, the majority of time should be spent on NET. Typically, I would recommend changing activity every 15 minutes; this helps keep it fresh, and also gives you plenty of opportunity to work on transitioning. 

There’s so much to say, but nobody wants to read pages and pages of a blog, so if anyone wants any more info, please get in touch. I’ll likely expand on some of what I’ve said in later posts.

For me, ABA and VB is the way forward.  

What is ABA?

As a parent, by the time you hear of ABA, you’re probably fed up of abbreviations. ABA stands for applied behaviour analysis.

I’ll try and translate some of the things you may read, some of the textbook definitions, and help paint a picture of how it may look. Dr Patrick Friman (author of the book Good Night Sweet Dreams I Love You: Now Get into Bed and Go to Sleep – How Tired Parents Can Solve Their Children’s Bedtime Problem) talks about how, as a field, we aren’t that great at marketing what we do, and I think he’s right.

ABA blocksIn a nutshell, ABA is a science dedicated to helping teach learners the skills they need to live a more independent life. These skills will cover domains such as functional communication (vocal, sign, PECS, (which I’m not a huge fan of for the most part, but that’s another post), or augmented communication devices), social skills, conversation skills,
play skills, group skills, self help skills, imitation, labelling, and many more. An ABA programme is typically made up of skills from several of the areas listed above, and tailored to the skill deficits of the learner. It will teach skills that ‘typically developing’ children often pick up without intensive teaching.  

These skills should be taught in fun and creative ways to help the learners access as much of their environment as possible. Sessions should involve identifying and following the learner’s motivation and reinforcing desirable behaviours. Some people talk about ’40 hours a week’, which was discussed in the Lovass 1987 paper, but I have overseen programmes that are 10 hours per week, and seen good progress; it depends on the learner.

Learners should learn because they want to, not because they have to

A main goal of ABA is to teach socially significant behaviours. It is a science devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behaviour. This means that targets of the programme should identify behaviours of importance to the learner and their family to increase (within reason). A programme should also, where appropriate, decrease undesirable behaviours by analysing why the problem behaviour is happening (the function).


ABA programmes are data led and aim to demonstrate reliable relationships between their interventions and the behavioural improvements; which has led to a ‘mature body of scientific knowledge, established standards for evidence-based practice, distinct methods of service, recognised experience and educational requirements for practice, and identified sources of requisite education in universities.’ ( This means that the ABA tutor that’s working 1-1 with the learner will be taking a range of data, such as ABC data (data on problem behaviour), and probe data (data on targets being taught), and at the end of the session they’ll spend some time plotting the data.

What about the logistics? Each ABA programme should have a BCaBA (board certified assistant behaviour analyst), or BCBA (board certified behaviour analyst) consultant overseeing it. Some are more involved than others, some have supervisors (who are usually studying towards board certification). The consultants will generally be responsible for designing the individualised programme, analysing data, training tutors and parents, updating goals, and maintaining good levels of communication between the team. You can search for consultants in your area here. The ABA tutors would act as the 1-1, and implement the programme that’s been designed. Some consultants will provide tutors, or take responsibility of recruitment, and some won’t. There are different places you can look to recruit tutors, such as the ABA UK Yahoo Group, VB Community, ABA Tutorfinder, and different ABA groups on Facebook. Dshutterstock_226205743.jpgepending on the competency of the tutors, and needs of the learner will dictate how often, and how long for, the consultant will visit. ABA sessions may occur at home, in the nursery (if the provision is OK with it), or at school (again if the provision allow it). Personally, I think if you can be around other children, then you should be. I’m not a big fan of teaching in heavily neutral, quiet, non-stimulating environments, as that isn’t real life. Once you’ve recruited some tutors (you should probably look to get at least 2 to aid generalisation of skills), and a consultant, an assessment will be carried out. This will guide the design of the programme. After this the consultant will normally hold an initial training day (may be 2 or 3 days depending on the experience of the tutors). From this point, the consultant will make monthly visits*.

How long will I need an ABA programme? It really depends on the learner and the team around him. The goal of ABA will be to equip the individual with the skills needed to be an independent learner as soon as is appropriate. This can be frustrating to hear as it’s not time specific, but it’s very difficult to predict the future that far ahead.

From asking parents I work with how they found out about ABA, most report it was self searched, not easy to come across, and usually one of the last ports of call. Why aren’t other professionals (paediatricians etc) forth coming with this? How many schools know about this super effective way of teaching? Maybe they do, but I just don’t know about it? As I mentioned in my first blog post, ABA feels like the best kept secret.

ABA is huge in the USA, with 44 states having insurance cover ABA. Why so far behind here then? Is it simply the cost under the guise of ‘not enough research’? That would certainly seem odd seeing as ABA is a field founded on research

I’m going to follow up with a post about the analysis of verbal behaviour, and ‘what is VB?’ as this is likely to be a term you hear, and an analysis I make use of.

There is of course, so much to mention in this section, and I hope I’ve covered enough to give you a little more info about ABA. If anybody would like more information on this, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. All I want to do is spread the ABA love.

*This is what I observe to be the average structure, but it may vary.

(Info used from Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2014)

What is autism?

So, I know this will be a predominantly ABA blog, but I wanted the first few posts to cover the stages parents encounter from diagnosis to starting an ABA programme, as it is rarely straight forward!

I have recruited the help of parents I work with, and the general consensus is that the first question after analysis (or around the time parents start seeking diagnosis), is what is autism?

It’s a term that most people have heard of, but actually know little about. While I was studying, I had some lectures on this, but a text book definition; ‘Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour’ doesn’t actually prepare you for working with, or caring for someone on the autism spectrum.

Statistic 1 – ASD are 4 times more prevalent in males

Now, the below graphic touches on the 3 areas in the triad of impairment which are effected by autism spectrum disorders, with some day to day examples.

Triad of impairment

Here’s a list of some things (by no means extensive) you may observe if you have a little one with autism (based on observations of parents);

  • Lack of eye contact
  • A regression in speech sounds and laughing from about 18 months’ old
  • No interest in other children
  • Self stimulatory behaviour (such as hand flapping)
  • Not responding to their name being called or other sounds in the environment
  • Little to no pointing to objects of interest

As autism is a spectrum disorder, difficulties can present in different ways, and differ from person to person. I feel this doesn’t really do justice to just how differently ASD can impact people. It can vary from people such as Temple Grandin  and Dan Aykroyd (he was in Ghostbusters, awesome film!)  to adults who struggle to meet daily living skills such as eating independently, being toilet trained, and having no functional communication, and everything in between. The spectrum is vast.

Statistic 2 – over 700,000 people have an autism spectrum disorder in the UK.

The cause of autism is unknown. It is suspected that it may be a genetic, environmental, and/or neurological factors. There is NO research that supports the notion that the MMR vaccine causes autism, nor ‘bad parenting’.

Here’s some common misconceptions about autism;

  • The Rain Man myth – it isn’t true that all people on the spectrum are a genius in some area. They may however have a special interest, but are no more likely to be a genius than anyone else.
  • Everyone with an ASD acts differently – not all people with an ASD will engage in uncommon self stimulatory behaviours such as rocking or hand flapping.
  • Children with autism can’t learn effectively – I have personally seen ABA strategies teach children skills I didn’t think they could.
  • People with ASD’s don’t make emotional attachments – Rubbish! I have worked with some incredibly loving children.

I must mention here that a diagnosis of autism is not necessary for an ABA intervention. Behaviour Analysts work with behaviour, not diagnoses. That’s not to say a diagnosis isn’t useful in other situations, as they are often needed to receive the support you are entitled to.

My time working with learners on the spectrum has taught me that each person has unique difficulties, which need to be approached in an individualised way. It’s about finding out what the learner likes (and this isn’t always obvious). It’s recognising that everything the learner does serves a purpose for them, even if it isn’t clear for us, and they don’t engage in problematic behaviours ‘to be naughty’. It’s about finding the best way to teach the learner and adapting to their needs. It’s remembering, even in times of difficulty, that progress can be made.

I won’t drone on anymore (turns out I love typing as much as I love talking!), but if anybody would like some more information about autism, I have some slides that I’ve adapted from an autism introduction, so if you’d like me to send them over, please leave a comment in the comment box below this blog

Thanks for reading!



Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism (Chantal Sicile-Kira)