Key Elements of Effective Reinforcements


Reinforcements must have enough power to affect the specific behavior you want to increase. They must compete with other reinforcements that currently follow and maintain the problem behavior. Many children with chronic behavior problems have a high threshold for rewards and punishment- they require very strong reinforcements to change their behavior. (For example, a child who gets an entire house’s attention when he acts out may not be motivated to change to earn TV time. The attention, power and control this child feels from acting out is a stronger motivator than watching TV or avoiding a consequence).


A. Variety: A reinforcement menu must include a sufficient number and variety of items to maintain its effectiveness over time. (Imagine if you could only earn Mc Donald’s ice cream cones every day for your positive behavior. Eventually you would get sick of Mc Donald’s ice cream cones and would no longer want to earn them. They would no longer be effective rewards or motivators). Variety in reinforcements includes having a wide range of items as well as items of differing strength/cost (how long they take to earn). When some items are harder to earn, they become stronger motivators. For example, when you are hungry, food becomes a strong motivator. On the other hand, if a child has unlimited access to video games at home, earning video game time is not that motivating.

B. Novelty: Because of the tendency to become rapidly satiated on reinforcements (getting sick of them), items can quickly lose their motivational value. Therefore, it is necessary to change a reinforcement menu on a regular basis (every 2 weeks or sooner for some children). This does not mean changing everything, but simply replacing a few items with new privileges/rewards to “spice it up”.

C. Uniqueness: Different people are motivated by different things. Rewards must be unique for each child.


A. When using a behavior chart to earn rewards, stars, checks or behavior bucks are only given when the desired behavior is performed.

B. Items on the reward menu must only be available through the reward system. For example, if earning an In-N-Out burger is on the reward menu and it costs 10 checks to redeem, then getting a burger from staff at other times without having to earn it will weaken its value as a motivator. On the other hand, having to work toward a burger for a limited amount of time will strengthen it as a reinforcement.

C. The more quickly a reinforcement is given following a desired behavior, the more effective it will be. Because many children with behavior problems are strongly influenced by what is most immediately satisfying in the environment, they are less likely to respond to your delayed reinforcement even though it may be desirable. Delaying gratification is extremely difficult for these children. In addition, children at earlier developmental stages (younger children or delayed children) require even more immediate reinforcement (within 5 seconds) following a desired behavior. Otherwise, if they demonstrate another less desirable behavior prior to being reinforced they may lose the connection and the wrong behavior may be reinforced.


A. ALWAYS give the child credit(star, check, behavior buck or PRAISE) each time they demonstrate the behavior you want.

B. ALWAYS give the child their reward ON TIME from the reinforcement menu each time it is earned. Earning rewards from the reinforcement menu on a frequent basis is critical to being motivating for a child. If it takes too long to earn a reward, a child may become unmotivated and give up trying new behavior.