Tip of the Week: Reinforcement

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Reinforcement is one of our most powerful tools when trying to change any behavior. So what happens when we use the same reinforcement over and over? It stops working because it is no longer doing its job — reinforcing the student!

Picture this: You decide that you want to start saving money each week from your paycheck so you tell yourself: if you put $50 in savings each month you get your favorite brownie sundae dessert. 

The first week, it works great! You look forward to the brownie dessert all week and once you deposit that money — brownie sundae here you come! 😁

The next week, it’s a little harder because the brownie sundae is good but you also really want to buy a new pair of shoes with that $50 dollars. Even so, you deposit the money and the sundae tastes pretty good. 

The next week, you actually eat a brownie sundae during the week and those shoes you want go on sale. You deposit the money and just have a few bites of the brownie sundae.

The next week, you buy the shoes (because the sale won’t last forever, right?). When it’s time to deposit the money, you don’t have enough and since you weren’t really that into the brownie sundae anymore — you don’t feel all that bad. 

By the next week, saving money falls away and you are back to your usual spending!

What happened? The reinforcement was no longer reinforcing enough to support the behavior change you were trying to accomplish. 

Why wasn’t the brownie reinforcing anymore?

  1. At the beginning, it was a special treat but having it every week (and having it during the week) changed that. It became just another “thing” and so not powerful enough to change the behavior. 
  2. It probably didn’t have enough power to begin with. Spending money was much more reinforcing than the brownie so the brownie never had a chance. 🙂

This happens all of the time when running reinforcement systems in the classroom. The reinforcer stops working and then it feels like the whole system needs to be thrown out. Instead of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” try these 5-tricks instead to get your reinforcement system back on track!

  • Have varied reinforcers from the beginning- don’t count on only one thing.
  • Try combining 2 reinforcers together to make a “super reinforcer!” (Playing iPad while eating popcorn)
  • Ask the students regularly what they want to work for! Reinforcement surveys are great for this! 
  • Make sure you aren’t “adultifying” the reinforcement. (otherwise known as taking the fun out of it) 🙂
  • Make sure that students are earning the reinforcement often enough to allow it to work it’s magic. 

If you feel like your reinforcement system isn’t working, don’t give up! So often just a few tweaks, and you’re back up and running! If you are looking for more support in setting up a reinforcement system for your classroom, check out the Bite-Size Behavior Course.

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