Using reinforcers to get the behaviour you want
As human beings we all are motivated by different kinds of things. For example, waking up in the
morning is much better when accompanied by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Going to work
everyday is fuelled by the anticipation of the weekend just lurking around the corner. We look
forward to things that reward us with joy and are more likely to do them.
We are wired to repeat behaviours that fuel the reward centres in our brain. It could be a
smile from a co-worker, a favourite lunch or a positive comment from a client that has the potential
for us to want to repeat the same behaviour again.
These rewards are called Reinforcers. A reinforcer acts like a consequence that can elicit the wanted
behaviour more frequently and more often. A reinforcer is like the genie coming out of a magic lamp
and making our wishes come true. We can use reinforcers in our day-to-day life to get the response
we would like from our children.
Many times parents notice their children doing the desired behaviour and thinking ”I would love to
see that more! “. The question then becomes “how do I reinforce this behaviour?”
Children with Autism often find it difficult to understand social cues as well as having difficulty
expressing themselves verbally, which are two common means to convey social reinforcement. For
example, a classroom teacher praises the child for following an instruction.
What is reinforcing for one person does not mean it is reinforcing for another. This is why it becomes
important to make sure that we find out what motivates the child and use that as a reinforcer. This
activates the reward centre of the brain and motivates the child to repeat the same behaviour
again and again. Kids with autism often need immediate reinforcers after good behaviour. These
reinforcers could range from preferred activities (e.g. swing, jump on trampoline), tangibles (e.g.
bubbles, Lego), sensory (e.g. watching water flow), and social attention from a favourable adult.
For example, if Charles sits on the potty and gets a hug from mum after sitting on the potty. This will
act as a reinforcer if hugs are something that motivate Charles. However, if he would rather have a
sticker, he won’t care if he gets a hug from his mother/father when he does what is requested of
Hence it is so important to know what your child likes and what motivates him/her so that as parents
we can have an inventory of rewards that can be used as reinforcers to increase the frequency of the
behaviour that you want from your child. If we understand this simple concept, we can get the
desired outcome from our children and set them on a path of positive behaviour.
Neeti is a passionate Early intervention advocate with a teaching background. Her experience in working with children with special needs fuelled her fire for learning more about inclusion so she can help families live more fulfilled and wholesome lives.