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Reinforcing Relationships and Teaching Children with Autism — Part I

Learner participation and well-trained instructors are critical components of every effective learning environment. These factors are especially important when it comes to teaching children with autism and other developmental delays. Additionally, the learner’s ability to follow directions from instructors during both structured teaching sessions and common daily activities is central to progressing through the teaching plan.

At Partington Behavior Analysts, our goal is not only to provide you with autism assessment tools and interventions, but also to provide you with the resources you need to establish a reinforcing relationship with your learner to help foster an effective learning environment. What are the basics of such a relationship? In part one of this three-part series on the topic, we will provide some clarification on the matter, and we will provide information that can help you understand the concept of reinforcement. Let’s get started.

Basics of a Reinforcing Relationship

Instructional Control

When you are in an instructional role, it can be very challenging if your student is uncooperative or failing to do what is asked of them. “Instructional control” refers to the degree to which an individual will follow a parent or educator’s instructions. If you are able to get your student to comply with learning tasks easily, you likely have good instructional control. However, challenges in this area may not necessarily reflect on the teacher’s skills as both children and adults vary considerably in the degree to which they follow directions from others.

In cases where achieving instructional control is difficult, it may be necessary to adjust teaching strategies and methodologies accordingly. When you first begin teaching a child with autism or another developmental delay, it is necessary to establish your own unique working relationship with the learner, and there are several steps you can take to help foster instructional control.

Learner Cooperation

Just as you must establish instructional control, you must establish or increase the learner’s cooperation. To better understand why a child should feel compelled to follow instructions, we must consider a few important factors: motivation, the timing of the request, and the difficulty of the requested task in relation to the value of the reinforcer. Learners are more likely to comply if there is a reasonable “payoff” (i.e., reinforcer) and if the timing of your request is right in their eyes. Likewise, the learner is more likely to follow instructions if they feel that the required response to obtain the potentially available reinforcer is easy enough. These are important factors to consider as you develop your reinforcing relationship with your student and begin teaching children with autism.

A Positive Teaching Relationship

Some children may not enjoy having adults in their presence, or they may not enjoy being approached by adults because of interactions with previous instructors. The child’s disposition with regard to this can have a major effect on their willingness to follow instructions and comply with learning tasks. In this case, it is necessary to develop a positive teaching relationship to reframe the learner’s thought process and their response to interaction with adults. To do so, we must engage in activities that “pair” the adult with the child’s reinforcing items and activities. We’ll provide more information on the pairing process in part three of this article. Before we do so, it is necessary to understand the concept of reinforcement.

Understanding Reinforcement

In the field of behavior analysis, the terms “reinforcer” and “reinforcement” have a more technical definition that simply being something that is used to influence behavior. Understanding the technical definitions of these terms is critical to effectively teaching children with autism and other developmental delays appropriate ways of interacting with others.

  • Reinforcer: any item or event that follows the occurrence of a behavior, resulting in the frequency of the behavior increasing in the future under similar circumstances.
  • Reinforcement: a process in which there is a change in the environment that follows a certain behavior, resulting in an increased probability that the specific behavior will occur more often in the future under similar circumstances.

Given these two definitions, there is a very important distinction to make. It is never correct to state, “reinforcement didn’t work.” It is more accurate that a certain consequence didn’t have a reinforcing effect, or say that it wasn’t a reinforcer for a specific behavior. Parents and educators often refer to reinforcing a child for a particular response, but it is important to understand that it is not the child who is reinforced, but rather their behavior. For example, by providing a reinforcer in response to a child’s willingness to comply during a teaching situation, we increase the probability that their willingness to comply will occur more often in the future.

Types of Reinforcers

Reinforcers offered by the instructor must be more desirable to the learner than those reinforcers that they can get by their own means. There are two types of reinforcers:

  • Primary reinforcers. These are unlearned, unconditioned reinforcers. They have a strengthening effect on behaviors without having to be learned in order to be effective, and they are necessary for the learner’s survival. Examples may include drinks and food items.
  • Conditioned reinforcers. Also known as secondary reinforcers, these obtain value by being paired with other existing reinforcers. Examples may include praise statements, smiles, clapping, high fives, and playing with others. 

In addition to primary and conditioned reinforcers, automatic reinforcements are also effective at strengthening behavior. This type of reinforcement doesn’t rely on an adult delivering the reinforcer, but rather, the child can engage in a behavior that produces the desired outcome. For example, a child can reach for their own food or marvel at a marbles journey down a track after he releases it.

Resources for Teaching Children with Autism

At Partington Behavior Analysts, we promote high-quality, effective interventions for individuals with autism and other developmental delays. We do so by providing clinicians, educators, and parents with industry-leading products, services, and resources that can help you develop effective teaching strategies and methodologies. Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism authored by our own James W. Partington, Ph.D., and Scott W., Partington, M.A. is a practical guide that details helpful information for teaching children with autism and other developmental delays. Purchase your copy today and be sure to check back soon for part two of this article series in which we discuss troubleshooting escape behavior and establishing reinforcers.

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