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Reinforcing Relationships and Teaching Children with Autism — Part II

Teaching children with autism requires skill, knowledge, and a well-defined teaching plan that addresses key behavior patterns to ensure the best possible outcome for the learner. Likewise, developing an appropriate reinforcing relationship with your learner is a critical component of the student-teacher relationship, and Partington Behavior Analysts is here for you every step of the way. In part one of this three-part series, we discussed how instructional control, learner cooperation, and a positive teaching relationship make up the basics of a reinforcing relationship. We also reviewed the difference between a reinforcer and a reinforcement, and we provided examples primary and conditioned reinforcers for autism.

Today, we will continue our discussion on reinforcers, focusing on an additional type of reinforcer and offering some insight on how you can identify and establish reinforcers for autism. Let’s get started.

A Problem with Learner Motivation

Escape Behavior

In addition to unlearned, unconditioned primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers, there is another type of reinforcer for autism that we refer to as “escape behavior.” This type of reinforcer is accomplished with the removal or termination of an undesirable situation for the learner. For example, a student may not like a certain learning situation, and so they may try a variety of tactics to prompt the teacher to conclude the lesson. These tactics might include behaving in a way that is disruptive, distracting the teacher, or limiting their interaction and responses to the instructor. There are many ways in which a learner may try to bring an end to a teaching situation, and if the lesson is stopped, the behaviors that resulted in the session stopping are reinforced. As a result, children who employ these escape behaviors do not actively participate in learning activities.

Troubleshooting Escape Behaviors

If you notice these escape behaviors as you are teaching children with autism, it is important to analyze the motivational factors behind them, as this often indicates there is a lack of motivation on the student’s part to participate in the learning activity. During your analysis of the situation and the corresponding behavior, you might consider whether or not the item you are using is an actual reinforcer. It is also wise to consider if you are setting the bar too high for your learner to earn the reinforcer (i.e., tasks are too difficult or there is too much work required to earn it). The reinforcement you have chosen to use for following directions should not only increase the learner’s cooperation, but it should also make the learner less likely to engage in escape behaviors.

Identifying and Establishing Reinforcers for Autism

Now that we have reviewed primary and secondary reinforcers, as well as offered troubleshooting tips for escape behaviors, let’s discuss the importance of identifying and establishing appropriate reinforcers for autism.

It is not uncommon for instructors to experience difficulty when trying to identify an effective reinforcer. After all, not all learners respond to a reinforcer in the same way. Some children may be perfectly happy engaging in long periods of instruction with minimal reinforcement, and other students may only respond to a reinforcer a couple of times before a new one must be employed. Although challenging, having control of a reinforcer when teaching a new skill is central to being able to reinforce the learner’s responses. As such, identifying and establishing appropriate reinforcers is incredibly important for instructors.

Approach #1: Review Overlooked Reinforcers

One method of identifying effective reinforcers is to review those which you may have previously disregarded. For example, you may have felt like it wasn’t appropriate to resort to food items as reinforcers previously for one reason or another. Your reasons for avoiding certain reinforcers may be justified, but if your learner is not participating in critical learning tasks, then it may be advantageous to experiment with reinforcers you ruled out previously. The most important task is to get the child participating in learning activities, even if you need to pull out all the stops to do so. Once the learner is actively responding, you can work on phasing out the reinforcer you feel is undesirable for other conditioned reinforcers.

Approach #2: Observe the Child Alone

If you are having difficulty identifying and establishing reinforcers while teaching children with autism, sometimes the best thing to do is stand back and observe what activities a learner gravitates to during free time. The actions a child takes during unstructured time are a good indicator of what they find desirable. For example, a child who goes and stands in front of an air conditioner during free play may enjoy the sensation of air blowing across their face and through their hair. Finding a way to mimic these sensations, say by using a battery-operated fan or by swinging the child around in a circle, can prove to be an effective reinforcer.

Approach #3: Reinforcer Sampling

This method of identifying and establishing reinforcers relies on exposing the learner to a wide variety of fun and positive items and activities to see which they enjoy the most. In this approach, it is important to try several variations of the same reinforcers before ruling any out, and you should try to identify new reinforcers throughout the day — just because the child did not like an activity in the morning doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy it in the afternoon. The goal here is to discover as many reinforcing activities as possible to provide even the most challenging learners with a variety of effective reinforcers.

Resources for Teaching Children with Autism

Are you searching for high-quality resources for teaching children with autism? Here at Partington Behavior Analysts, we promote effective, well-researched interventions for children and adults with autism and other developmental delays, and we would love to help you. Our industry-leading products, services, and resources help clinicians, educators, and parents develop a reliable skill set of effective teaching strategies and methodologies to help students learn the critical skills they need to be independent.

As a practical guide, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism provides valuable information for teaching children with autism and other developmental delays. This book was written by our very own James W. Partington, Ph.D. and Scott W., Partington, M.A., and we are confident that it can provide you with helpful guidance on your teaching journey. Purchase your copy today and be sure to check back soon for part three of this article series in which we discuss pairing procedures to establish an adult as a conditioned reinforcer.

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