Reinforcement is an important component to learning new skills and behaviors. While some reinforcement is contrived, much reinforcement occurs naturally in our everyday lives. We most often don’t even recognize that it is occurring. Reinforcement occurs when there is a stimulus change immediately following a response and increases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar situations. More simply put, reinforcement is a process that occurs after the behavior and helps us to learn new skills because it strengthens it.
Reinforcement is part of what we call operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is simply one way we learn, and we learn through either reinforcement or punishment. Let’s look at some examples of naturally occurring reinforcement.

  • A baby reaches her hands towards the mobile and it moves.
  • You push the button on your coffee pot and the coffee starts to brew.
  • You put your keys in your car and it starts.
  • You lather sunscreen on your skin to avoid a sunburn.
  • These are things you might see or do in your everyday life. So how is reinforcement working in these situations you might ask?
  • The mobile moving when the baby reaches her hands increases the frequency of the baby reaching towards the mobile again.
  • Your coffee brewing increases the likelihood you will push the button the next time you want coffee.
  • Your car starting increases the frequency of you putting your keys in the ignition the next time drive.
  • Avoiding the sunburn increases the frequency you will use sunscreen again when in the sun.
Antecedent Behavior


Baby sees mobile Reaches hands

Mobile moves/reinforces movement

The key word in all of these situations is INCREASES. The behavior increases which makes it reinforcement.
Reinforcement can also be socially mediated which means that it is must be delivered by another person. This is what we might call “contrived” reinforcement. Often, children with autism need some additional reinforcement to learn new skills and this is okay. Just because a child needs some extra reinforcement now does not mean they will always need that same reinforcement as they continue to grow. The goal of any reinforcement program should focus on fading tangible reinforcement as new skills are learned or problem behaviors decreased. For example, with my own child, I used a sticker chart paired with praise to increase going on the potty. Now that my child is consistently going on the potty, I no longer use the sticker chart and use praise intermittently.

Reinforcement has two categories, primary and secondary reinforcement. Primary reinforcement is reinforcement that is not learned. It is referred to as unconditioned reinforcement. This type of reinforcement refers to things such as food, water, sleep, and air. Secondary reinforcement is conditioned reinforcement. It is conditioned because it is the process of pairing something that was not previously reinforcing with something that is reinforcing such as the primary reinforcement of food. For example, pairing praise with a bite of food makes praise a conditioned reinforcer. With time, you should be able to remove the food and only use praise as a reinforcer because it has been conditioned.

There are two types of reinforcement, positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when you add in or present something after the behavior that increases the future frequency of that behavior. Negative reinforcement is not negative, hence the title. Instead it also increases the future frequency of a behavior because it is reinforcement that removes something aversive to the individual. Let’s look at some examples.

Positive Reinforcement
Child picks up toys and teacher provides praise and a sticker. *This is positive reinforcement because the praise and sticker are added/presented, and it increases picking up toy behavior.
Negative Reinforcement
Child asks for a break from completing homework and parent allows the child to take a 5-minute break. *This is negative reinforcement because the aversive homework is removed, and the child is more likely (increases) to ask for a break the next time he is completing homework.
There are many things you can use for reinforcement, thus there are many different types of reinforcers. Reinforcers can be activities/privileges, tangible items, primary reinforcers such as food, social reinforcement such as praise, and tokens. Tokens signal larger reinforcement later. For example, your child must earn three tokens before picking a larger reinforcer. Tokens can be actual tokens, or they may be stickers, play money, etc. What your child finds reinforcing will be unique to them. Let’s look at some examples.
Games: Board and interactive such as peek a boo, tag, ring around the rosy, etc.
Community outings: going to the park, out to eat, swimming, etc.
Art activities
Singing/music activities
Staying up late
Taking a break/down time

Tangible Items
Sensory items
Household items that your child enjoys

Social Reinforcers
High fives
Back rubs
Thumbs up

Primary Reinforcers

Sticker chart
Play money (bucks)
Actual tokens

How do you know what is reinforcing to your child? You most likely can already identify your child’s favorite things; however, you may want to do an informal reinforcer assessment to get a better idea of which items are the most reinforcing. To conduct an informal assessment, identify what items your child plays with the most or watch them during play to see what they play with. You can also ask others who know your child well what they think your child likes. For example, asking your child’s teacher what they prefer at school. Once you have identified items that your child prefers, you can pair items and ask them to choose which one they what. Take notes, on the items/activities that your child chooses the most.
When teaching a new skill consider using some of your child’s favorite things as reinforcers to shape the new behavior or skill you want your child to learn. It will be important to cut off reinforcement for problem behavior and reinforce the skills and behaviors you want to see your child engage in. To use your child’s favorite items as reinforcers here are a few general strategies.
Place the items in your child’s view but not in their reach. This may motivate them to ask for the item or engage in the skill you are teaching.
Keep items that you are using as reinforcers put away. Try to only use them during the times you are shaping behavior or teaching new skills. If your child as access to the reinforcing items all of the time, they may get satiated on them and the items will no longer be reinforcing.
Vary up reinforcers. Just because your child likes something one day does not mean it will be what they are motivated for the next. Just as I mentioned above, your child may get satiated with the reinforcers.
When teaching a new skill or shaping a new behavior it is important to remember that you may need to reinforce successive approximations of that behavior. This is shaping. For example, when teaching a child to sit at the table you may first reinforce the child standing at the table, then sitting for 30 seconds, then reinforce only when they sit for 1 minute, etc., until you get to the target goal.
Often in the beginning when teaching a new skill or shaping a new behavior, reinforcement must occur in close approximation to the target behavior. That is, reinforcement should occur immediately after the response and for each response. Once your child starts to become successful for a period of specified time, you can fade reinforcement (i.e. reinforce for a certain number of responses or time).
Reinforcement is perhaps the most important and powerful principle of behavior analysis. It is always in use and sometimes we might accidentally reinforce behaviors that we don’t want to see. However, when reinforcement is used appropriately it can shape any new behavior or skill that you want to see your child engage in. What behavior will you reinforce today?

Bearss, K., Johnson, C., Handen, B., Butter, E., Lecavalier, L., Smith, T., Scahill, L. (2018). Parent training for disruptive behavior: the rubi autism network. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Preference assessments. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from

Cherry. K. (2019). Positive and negative reinforcement in operant conditioning. Retrieved from

Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. New Jersey: Pearson.