When “reinforcement” is not the answer

Originally published with the title “For BCBAs, teachers, and staff, when reinforcement is not the answer” on Linkedin on January 14, 2015, and posted on the website soon after. The post was given a new title “When Motivations is not the issue”, and portions were added, removed, or reorganized on March 24, 2017. In the original post I wrote, “I normally don’t take too much time reading professionally-oriented Facebook posts (that is what Linkedin is for)…” Update 2017: I do not go on Linkedin for professional group discussions however I spend a good deal of time reading professionally-oriented posts on Facebook and am very likely to “peek at” the responses other professionals posted. I do not recommend that certified professionals ask for help or give advice online. For more on this, please read my recent post Treatment Recommendations Online: Don’t Do It” I am proud to say that even back then, I was careful with my recommendations, but if this happened now I would likely respond privately not publicly. Update 2021: I made a few more edits and I decided to go back to a modified version of the original name of this entry because I feel it better reflects what I want to say.

I recently participated in a conversation within an ABA-oriented Facebook group that started when a school professional posted a request for ideas for what to do about a learner that engages in challenging behavior in a general education classroom. Something about the way it was written resulted in me taking a peek at the responses that other professionals posted.

I was shocked, and not in a good way.

“Make sure they love the stickers you are using on their chart” (?!)

The subject was a young learner that would engage in disruptive behavior throughout the day including property destruction, running around the room, and yelling phrases like “I like to hit.” The behavior was deemed to be reinforced by attention and escape. The learner was verbal and articulate but not responding to the delivery of reinforcement as hoped. The person posting was looking for suggestions that would help her address the behavior.

The flurry of responses that followed included a myriad of suggestions ranging from conducting preference assessments, using more potent reinforcers, using a denser schedule of reinforcement, varying the delivery of intermittent reinforcement, and teaching the learner more appropriate ways to ask for break or attention.

As I read through them, I anxiously looked for the correct response, and of maybe 30 responses, only 1-2 of them alluded to it, but none clearly stated it, and not one asked the right question which was:

They were all talking about reinforcement but I wanted to know what was this kid supposed to be doing when he was engaging in all that challenging behavior.

I would have copied my direct response but the original poster pulled the post down (As a reminder, by 2017 I was recommending that no one give treatment advice online. if this were now I would have reached out privately). The following is an abridged version of what I wrote:

Take some time to define the behavior that the learner should be engaging in instead of focusing specifically on the behavior you are trying to reduce. Just because the learner is verbal and articulate does not mean that he has the classroom readiness skills necessary to participate in a regular education elementary classroom. My gut is that he does not have a generalized waiting response, does not follow multistep directions, and cannot do independent work without prompts. Teaching replacement behavior is more than teaching appropriate ways to ask for a break or to get attention, it is also about making sure that a learner has the appropriate readiness skills to do what you expect them to do.

Wouldn’t you know, the response that came back from the person who posted the original question was:

“Adrienne, you described him perfectly.”

Professionals have to do a better job looking at the whole picture because sometimes “reinforcement” isn’t the answer.

Why? Because no matter how great your reinforcement system is, a learner won’t engage in a behavior they have not learned.

Not convinced? Consider this-

I give you $1000 for every minute you remain on task writing the correct code to develop an android based app that will measure your heart rate. How much money will you have after 10 min?

If you don’t know how to write code- $0.

What if I increase that to $3000 for every 30s you remain on task writing code AND do not clench your fists, say “this is stupid” or get up and walk away. How much money will you have after 10 min?

If you don’t know how to write code- $0.

What is the likelihood you will sit down in the chair in front of the computer the next time I ask you to do this before telling me “This is stupid,” or walking away?

This is the grown-up version of what was happening in that elementary classroom.

7 things you should try in addition to trying to figure out the function of a behavior or identify reinforcers

1. Observe the classroom. What are the students supposed to be doing when your client/student starts engaging in the challenging behavior? In other words, you should determine what the average expectation is of the rest of the class when your student starts walking around the room or crawling under the desk…again.  The readiness skills kids need to succeed in a classroom are vast. From following 2-4 step directions independently, completing worksheet independently, and producing legible letters while writing sentences during a creative writing activity to keeping a desk organized and materials at hand and sitting for extended periods of time with few opportunities to respond kids are expected to do a great deal in school…and some of them just can’t.

2. Assess- Can your learner actually engage in the expected behavior? If so, under what conditions? Determine what behavior you need teach to get that student up to speed. Determine what supports can you put in place to help the learner be more successful.

3. Change your focus to the behavior the student should be engaging in. Create clear, objective, and complete definitions based on the information you gathered from your initial observations and assessment. The definition(s) should describe what the learner should be doing when they are doing all that other stuff they shouldn’t. Take data on the expected behavior. The results will likely be that the frequency of expected behavior is very low, or the duration the learner is able to engage in expected behavior is short. Now you have something to teach.

4. You may need to assess prerequisite skills and teach them first.

5. If prerequisite skills are mastered you can begin shaping/teaching the expected classroom behavior. Consider modifications and accommodations that are either easy to fade or commonly used (to-do lists). Now you have behavior to reinforce.

  • Make sure all staff are trained on how to teach and reinforce the behavior.
  • Make sure your response definition is clear and complete! The learner will sit on the floor facing the teacher AND raise hand at least 3 times, responds with the class when choral responding is expected 3/5 x- etc.

6. If possible, work with parents to practice the behavior at home. Use behavior skills training to train the parents on how to teach and reinforce… Give specific instructions on how they can make practice fun.

7. Continue to collect data on the behavior of concern. I can’t tell you how many times in my professional career we were able to reduce challenging behavior simply because we taught readiness behavior, independent behavior, or play skills.

There still may be the need to implement additional supports to address challenging behavior, but if you do the things I suggested, you have a better chance of helping students do the things they need to do to be successful in the classroom.

One last note – looking back on this article from 2015 and the updates in 2017 and doing few edits in 2021 it strikes me how my role as a parent of two teens, my time attending the Morningside Teacher’s Academy in 2018 and 2019, and my work at ABAC has strengthened my belief in what I wrote here. There is more to come on this topic. I can’t wait to get writing.


  1. Stuart Hazard says:

    Marvelous case of stating the obvious, but still a good reminder. I will admit to getting hung up on reinforcers for behavior the individual “should” be doing, based on the unwarranted assumption that s/he “should” know how to do it.

    1. abacnj_admin says:

      I am glad it serves as a good reminder! You would be surprised how many assume kids can do things and proclaim that the reason they do not is that they are lazy or manipulative or willfully noncompliant.

Comments are closed.