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Positive Reinforcement: A Powerful Tool

Posted Apr 09 2010 8:36pm

I just got the graph from the learning support teacher showing Michael’s timeouts from March. He currently gets a timeout only for yelling or screaming and for any aggressive actions (hitting, kicking or throwing things). Outside of these, he is prompted toward the desired behavior and positive behavior is reinforced through a visual token system.

This had been working quite well for a while, although lately the timeouts have been gradually increasing in frequency and it was discovered after a recent series of aggressive episodes that the reinforcement scheduled had been thinned considerably because of how well he was doing.

Oh, beware the words “well” and “fine,” I tell you – they’ll get you every time!

He attended 20 days of school from March 3rd to 31st (not sure why the 1st and 2nd aren’t on the graph) and had a total of 10 timeouts.

The most days in a row with a timeout was 2; whereas the most days in a row without a timeout was 9. So what was different about those 9 days in a row?

Simple – we increased the positive reinforcement.

Yep, we upped the visual reinforcement back to its original level on March 15th and then had 9 days without a timeout. In fact, even after that, he only had three timeouts the rest of the month, and one of those was on a day when he had been on a study trip. He had done an amazingly fantastic job through the entire day to that point, but just couldn’t recover from being upset when he got out during a spelling game due to mis-hearing the word that was asked.

I have quoted this before, but it’s still so true:

The power of positive reinforcement is the most under-utilized tool we have.
~ Peter Gerhardt, Organization for Autism Research

In fact, our autism consultant has introduced another visual reinforcement schedule, which is set up like a game and based on Super Mario Bros, that specifically targets his behaviors during competitive situations. At least for now, it is motivating enough to help mitigate the negative feelings he has when he doesn’t win or isn’t the first or best one in an activity. (I’ll see if I can get a copy of it to post here; they keep the book at school.)

Have you found this to be true for your child? What motivates them even when the emotional stakes are high?

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