Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is at work when consequences that follow a skill or behavior result in an increase in that skill or behavior by the toddler. For example, when dumping shapes in a shape sorter results in well-loved tickles the toddler is even more likely to continue using the shape sorter. Another toddler may be reinforced to allow his shoes to be put on by mom if this activity is directly followed by outside play.

  • Reinforcement must be meaningful to the toddler. If the reinforcer chosen holds no value to the child it is very unlikely to affect her behavior. For example, while many toddlers are reinforced by social attention and physical affection, some children with autism spectrum disorders may find these aversive. For these toddlers, social praise and physical affection is unlikely to elicit increases in skill or behavior. Conducting a reinforcement sampling better ensures that reinforcers are individualized.

  • As possible, reinforcers should be natural and related to the skill or behavior. Natural reinforcers are those that would have occurred anyway if the toddler engaged in the skill/behavior. When teaching a toddler to request, the toddler’s requests should, as possible, be immediately followed by a related response to each request.

  • Multiple reinforcers are more effective than a single reinforcer (Alberto & Troutman, 2008). Pairing reinforcers helps to increase value for the toddler. A toddler, who enjoys mom’s attention, will be more likely to consistently sign for “help” by getting help from mom along with her smile and a cheerful “yay.”

  • Recognize and plan for the potential of satiation. When the reinforcer is overused it may lose value for the toddler. A toddler may not be interested in learning to put pieces in a puzzle if after every piece placed in the puzzle he gets a fuzzy ball to play with before returning to the puzzle. He may enjoy the activity and be more likely to place the pieces if the reinforcer is provided after the entire puzzle is completed. Additionally, a toddler may not find value in completing a cleanup routine if he is being reinforced by crackers just after his lunch. More information on the importance of schedules for reinforcement follows.