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“Reinforcement didn’t work!”

It is not uncommon for practitioners to refer to the concept of reinforcement, especially as it relates to skill development as part of an Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS).  Many parents with a child with autism are familiar with the term reinforcement—it’s used as a means to strengthen and increase the occurrence of a targeted behavior. Specifically, immediately after the desired behavior occurs, one would typically deliver a reinforcer, an object (a favorite toy) or event (playing on the swing) that increases the likelihood that the child will behave similarly in the future.  

While the above description may appear pretty straightforward, it’s not uncommon for people to struggle with applying this important concept.  Sometimes, clients report that “reinforcement didn’t work” or that their child is still infrequently displaying the desired behavior. Here are some variables to consider that may help with troubleshooting the problem:


Deliver reinforcement immediately following the appropriate behavior.  Doing so will help the learner to associate it with his behavior. Consequently, the learner is more likely to engage in the same behavior in the future.


Make sure that reinforcement is delivered frequently enough.  Often times, children will discontinue their behavior because they did not come to associate it with positive or desirable outcomes.  Ensuring that their behavior results in something good, on a sufficiently frequent basis, will influence them to continue behaving in the same manner.


The size of the reinforcer delivered should correspond to the magnitude of the behavior that the child displays.  For example, if he eats a small plate of food, he can have a cookie for dessert. Likewise, if the child completes his homework on his own and does his chores, he can watch his favorite TV show for a half hour.  Notice that as the workload or effort required of the child increases, the size of the reinforcer to be earned does so as well.

If all of the above variables are accounted for and the child is still infrequently displaying the targeted behavior, one might need to re-evaluate whether he or she is actually using a reinforcer.  Remember a reinforcer increases the desired behavior or maintains it at a high rate. If it fails to do so, by definition, the item or event cannot be classified as a reinforcer. In this situation, it might be best to find something else that can be used to increase the desired behavior.

Reinforcement can play an integral role in shaping new, desirable behaviors.  By attending to some of the above variables, one will be better positioned to teach the learner new skills.  For more information on this evidence-based procedure and some additional strategies related to its delivery, we recommend reading the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.  

For information and resources related to AFLS assessments, follow the link provided.

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