Step 2.7 Use direct or natural reinforcers and then transition to the next opportunity

A natural reinforcer is defined as a reinforcer that has a direct relationship to the child’s behavior and the task. The reinforcer, a consequence, is logically related to a chain of antecedents and responses.


A toddler may indicate interest in blowing bubbles. When he blows the bubbles, the bubbles created are the natural reinforcer for this behavior (i.e., blowing the bubbles). Likewise, if the toddler requests the bubbles to be blown by vocalizing, ”bah,” the natural reinforcer would be for the parent to open the bubbles and blow them (or help the child blow them).


a) Identify materials and activities that can be used to address a toddler’s

objective during a teaching opportunity

This is done in conjunction with following the toddler’s lead, providing choices, and establishing motivation through shared control. The delivery of the natural reinforcer is directly tied to these PRT components.

For example, a parent or practitioner presents a child with a clear jar with a lid that contains raisins. The toddler will most likely try to open the jar and then look to the practitioner for help. After the toddler attempts to use a target phrase either independently or through clear prompting, such as “help!” or “open raisins", the practitioner immediately provides access to the natural reinforcer inside the jar.

In contrast to PRT opportunities that employ natural reinforcers, the parent could have prompted the toddler to say “open” in reference to an empty jar, then provide a raisin sitting on a plate on the table.

b) Parents and practitioners implement a learning activity that is functionally

and directly related to the toddler’s objectives

If a toddler’s target behavior is to ask for a break instead of escaping demands by screaming, when the toddler initiates a request for a break by saying, “break” or pointing to a “break card,” the practitioner immediately responds by allowing the toddler to have a minute of neutral free time while staying in the same area. However, if the teacher instructed the toddler to complete another task before reinforcing her initiated response, “break,” then this would not be an example of a directly related, functional reinforcer.

Note: Although not a natural reinforcer, this would be an appropriate strategy for thinning reinforcement in order to increase desired task engagement over time.

c) Embed social interaction into natural reinforcers

Follow the infant and toddler’s lead in order to identify reinforcing social activities that can be increasingly incorporated into routines for infants and toddlers. Research has also identified that embedding preferred social activity into the delivery of the reinforcer is effective in improving synchronous toddler and parent engagement, eye contact, and improved toddler and parent affect (Vernon et al., 2012).

Potential Ways to Embed Motivating Social Activity into Delivery of Natural Reinforcers

Activity & child response (prompted or spontaneous) Natural reinforcers without social activity Natural reinforcers with embedded social activity
Jumping on trampoline Toddler requests, “jump” Toddler gets to jump on trampoline Adult jumps with the toddler
Splashing in the bath Toddler requests, “splash” Toddler gets to splash water Adult splashes the toddler, toddler splashes the adult
Playing cars

Toddler says, “crash cars”

Toddler is given two cars to crash into each other Adult crashes a toy car into the toddler’s toy car
Sliding on slide Toddler says, “slide” Toddler gets to go down the slide Adult and the toddler go down the slide together
Music Toddler requests a song Toddler listens to the song on the computer Adult sings the songs to the toddler
Playing with dinosaurs Toddler communicates “dino” Toddler is given a toy dinosaur Adult “roars” the dinosaur and makes it “stomp” or “fly” over to the toddler


d) Reinforce joint attention and social comments with individualized social


Joint attention is a triadic social experience between a child, item or event, and an adult. Infants as young as 8-months old engage in joint attention in order to share with parents their affect (interest, happiness, enthusiasm) associated with an event or item. The natural reinforcers for joint attention acts should be distinct from the natural reinforcers associated with requesting items and events, as well as other behavior regulation functions (Jones, Carr, & Feeley, 2006). Provide the enjoyable social reinforcers right after joint attention, such as pointing at a picture or saying a comment.

These reinforcers are:

(1) individually identified (and often unique) for each toddler and

(2) they are social.

They are social because the rewarding aspect of the activity centers around interaction with the adult.

Review examples below of potential ways to use social reinforcers when directly targeting joint attention in infants and toddlers. In the examples, the toddler’s social reinforcers include tickles, exaggerated noises or voices, and jumping with an adult.

Using Social Reinforcers as Natural Reinforcers for

Targeting Socially Motivated Joint Attention Behaviors

Activity & child response (prompted or spontaneous)

Example non-social reinforcers for: joint attention used for requesting objects

Example of Idiosyncratic natural social reinforcers for: joint attention used for socially sharing affect
Walking at the zoo
Toddler points at a monkey and looks back at mom

TToddler allowed to go look at the monkey

Mom says, “Yes, a monkey!” gives the toddler “monkey tickles;” mom and child make monkey noises together
Reading a book
Toddler brings the train book over to mom, gives eye contact, and says, “trains!”

Mom gives the train book and/or reads the book to the toddler

Mom exclaims, “Choo! Choo!” and pretends to be a train while making train sounds

Playing Pop Up Pirate™

Toddler points at the pirate, looks at mom, and comments, “it popped!”
Mom gives the toddler more pirate swords to continue playing the game Mom says, “The pirate popped!” and has the toddler on her lap, and bounces him as if to make him “pop up”
Doing a letter puzzle
Toddler finds the letter “V,” picks it up, holds it out to show Dad, and smiles at him.

Mom gives the puzzle board to the toddler so they may put in the letter “V”

Dad tickles the child while making a “Vvv” sound and says, “You found V!”

Playing Cariboo™
Toddler opens a door with the key, points down, looks up at the practitioner, smiles, and exclaims, “pink ball!”
Toddler may take out the pink ball and continue with the chosen game

The practitioner juggles the ball while making silly noises, and says, “the pink ball!”