The Basic Principles of Reinforcement

August 6, 2017

The Basic Principles of Reinforcement


It is important to understand the distinguishing differences between types of reinforcement to be able to plan for increasing or decreasing future behavior in any way we desire. Firstly, reinforcement is a process, not a thing. So, a piece of candy is not considered “reinforcement.” Candy, however, can represent a reinforcer, if candy increases the behavior that preceded the delivery of that candy. Making sense? Just keep reading!


We reinforce behavior, not the students themselves. So we did not reinforce Johnny for doing well on a math test, we reinforced his behavior of getting A’s and doing well on the math test.


Types of Reinforcement


Positive Reinforcement is when something is added to the environment and the probability of behavior increases.


Negative Reinforcement is when something is removed from the environment and the probability of behavior increases.


Here are some examples to better understand these concepts!


+R= Bob gives Sue a star sticker every time she uses the word thank you; Sue’s thank you’s increase. Another example, Mom and Dad give their daughter a dollar for every trip to Target that she does not engage in tantrums, their daughter’s trips to Target without tantrum increase.


-R= Bob takes away Sue’s homework when she cries during homework; Sue’s crying increases during homework time. Another example, Mom and Dad remove their son’s uncomfortable shoes every time he appropriately expresses that he is uncomfortable; their son’s appropriate requests to remove uncomfortable shoes increases.


Schedules of Reinforcement


Fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval and variable interval are schedules of reinforcement. Ratio refers to number of responses and interval refers to time; so, fixed ratio means reinforcement is delivered on a set amount of responses ex:/ every 4thresponse. Variable ratio means reinforcement is delivered based on responses but without a set amount and varying number of responses ex:/ a slot machine. Fixed interval means reinforcement is delivered with a set amount of time ex:/ every 5 minutes. Variable interval means reinforcement is delivered based on time but without a set amount of time or varying time has elapsed ex:/ around bedtime.


Note to Parents


Maybe some of these examples made you recall some past scenarios where you may have been reinforcing a behavior you did not want to reinforce! That’s okay, we’re here to help! Each element of reinforcement is important to your child’s success; and each child’s behavior will require a variation of both.  Your BCBA and behavior technicians are trained to select the best schedule of reinforcement and reinforcement procedures based on the client’s specific academic and behavioral needs. If data conclude that a certain intervention is not working, we can alter the schedule of reinforcement, thin the reinforcement schedule, bulk up the reinforcement schedule, change the reinforcer, etc. We will work with you to find what works!




Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2008). Applied behavior analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.

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