You may have noticed that everywhere from Pinterest to prison people use reinforcement strategies to get people to do what they want. Whether this is a loyalty card at your local burrito joint, or demerit points when you get a speeding ticket. Its long been known that reinforcing a behaviour, makes it either likely or unlikely to occur again (depending on what kind of reinforcement you use).
Often in therapy sessions, after hearing about complex behaviours that parents have seen in their kids with ASD, I would suggest the use of a reward chart at home. This was quite often met with a stern, "we've tried the reward chart but it doesn't work! I don't know what else to do!"
The fact is that reward charts, or more generally termed Reinforcement Schedules are almost always effective, as long as its a strategy thats administered effectively.
So to support those parents out there who don't have reward chart on the go. Here are my 10 hot tips.
1. Make sure their is no other underlying reason for the behaviours your seeing.
Do everything you can to make sure that the behaviour that your child is exhibiting is not related to pain, discomfort, developmental delays, anxiety etc. Its also a good idea to make sure that their hearing is not affected and their general sensory needs are being met. You can check with your GP or child health professional to ensure these things are ruled out.
2. Your greatest reinforcer is your attention.
When your child is your centre of attention, their behaviour is being reinforced. I often explain this to parents comparing to giving lollies. Imagine, every time you looked at your child, spoke to them or touched them, you had to give them lollies. You would find that their are plenty of times in the day they would end up getting lollies when they have been playing up! Your attention is like lollies for some children, and even when you yell at them, lecture them, or otherwise give your attention, you are literally reinforcing that behaviour. The solution? Withdrawal of attention when your child is behaving poorly. You can still do this while ensuring they are safe and your property/other children are protected. Remain in the room but avoid eye contact, facing them or speaking to them when they are doing something you want to stop. However look for something that they are doing right and give them praise for that. Soon you will begin to find your child will naturally gravitate toward the behaviours that get praise rather than those that get no reinforcement whatsoever.
3. Understand the power of both positive reinforcement/negative reinforcement.
Most people understand positive reinforcement as being rewarding and negative reinforcement as being punishment. In fact, positive reinforcement is any reinforcement that presents something new to increase the likelihood of the behaviour occurring. E.g. Jenny gets some of her favourite cereal if she dresses herself, or Chris gets to play with his transformers once he does his sight words. Negative reinforcement on the other hand is when something is removed from the equation. For example, if Steven eats his Broccoli he can leave the dinner table (the need to stay at the dinner table is removed). A punishment can be both positive reinforcement or a negative reinforcement depending on the nature of the punishment (see point 6 on punishment).
4. Make it visual
Involving your child by making an actual chart which uses pictures and words (if your child can read) which links the preferred behaviour to the reward (or the unwanted behaviour to the consequence). Make it abundantly clear so that its predictable. Put the chart somewhere where it is seen multiple times in the day and refer back to it when reinforcing. Make it visually stimulating and put in a lot of effort so that your child can better recognise how important it is. The example below is one that can be customised at www.tomfo.com.
The key to a good reinforcement schedule is choosing a reward (or reinforcer) which is motivating enough to change behaviour. Only you can really determine what that might be (according to your child's interests). As a rule of thumb, younger kids usually need smaller - but more frequent rewards (e.g. a small cookie whenever they go to the toilet on their own) while older kids can usually manage larger - less frequent rewards (e.g. going out for ice-cream on Saturdays). If your reward stops working, you may need to adjust either the type of reward, or the frequency its given. Larger rewards can be broken down into more frequent reinforcement too if needed, e.g. Thomas can go to sea world at the end of the month if he can fill a jar with cotton balls, he receives a cotton ball to put in his jar every time he says 'please' and 'thank you'.
Here is an important note. REWARDS AREN'T BRIBES. A bribe is when you reward someone for doing something bad. A reward is for something that is good. So don't let anyone try to tell you that you shouldn't reward children because its a bribe, its not!
The word punishment carries with it an idea of something harmful or adverse. This isn't always the case. Positive punishment (see point 3 above) is where a consequence is added following the behaviour occurring (e.g. when David pushes his brother, he is put in timeout). Negative punishment is where the consequence is taking away something that is desired (e.g. Lachlan looses some of his iPad time following yelling at a classmate). Punishment is a valid form of reinforcement (please read the next point before sending hate mail!). However remember that yelling (as a positive punishment - meaning that you are adding something to the situation) is actually adding attention, which may be exactly what your child is looking for! You may yell and scream all day for a child not to do something however if your attention is what they are after, then you are actually reinforcing that behaviour! Remember your attention, or lack of it, is the best reinforcer! If using punishment, always avoid physical coercion or aggression of any kind, without exception. When parents model aggressive behaviour, kids tend to learn it.
If you do use a punishment, ensure you take some time with your child to mend the bridge with expressions of love, respect and encouragement once its finished.
7. Reward more or punish more?
According to research, encouragement and rewarding preferred behaviours is much more effective on changing behaviour than punishments (both positive and negative punishment). Always aim for rewards/attention/encouragement over punishments/yelling/isolation/threats and you can expect a better outcome.
8. Consistency is key
Make sure you are 100% consistent with what you outline on your chart. Kids will ALWAYS push the limits but its important you stick to your guns. This is easier said than done but in reality consistency is key to an effective reinforcement schedule.
9. Look around for inspiration and ideas
There is loads of good and bad information on the internet about this. Make sure if you go searching the internet that you are accessing reliable evidence-based information. If you are a subscriber to the Parents as Partners: Online Early Intervention Resource Library, you have solid evidence based information at your fingertips that will be vital to the success of your reinforcement schedule. You can also utilise the forum to gain advice from other parents as to what has worked for them.
This reward schedule is available at singaporebaby.com
10. Seek help from a professional when needed
Talk to your Occupational Therapist or child Psychologist for more specific guidance on constructing your reinforcement schedule. Again if you are a subscriber to the Online Resource Library, utilise the community forum to get some more specific advice from a professional on how to refine your strategy.
If you use these tips I am confident that you will find that the reinforcement schedule/reward chart is a really useful strategy that does have the power to change behaviour!