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)

9 thoughts on “Reinforcement didn’t work…

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