Teacher and child in classroom

The use of positive reinforcement is a vital component in the replacement and strengthening of behaviors. When implemented correctly and consistently, positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for professionals and family members working with children with autism. Here at Blossom Children’s Center, we work closely with your child and family to educate and train you in behavioral reinforcement strategies to help your child thrive in all their natural environments.

To better understand the importance and benefits of positive reinforcement, we must first examine its roots. We’ll take you through the fundamentals of behavioral therapy and the development of behavior reinforcement.

  • What is Behavioral Therapy?
  • Behavioral Therapy and Children
  • Common Behavioral Challenges
  • Addressing Life Skills
  • Two Theories of Behavioral Therapy
  • Operant Conditioning and the Work of B.F. Skinner
  • Understanding Reinforcement and Punishment
  • Positive Changes in Therapy
  • Understanding ABA Therapy
  • Antecedent-Based Intervention
  • Benefits of Implementing Antecedent-Based Intervention
  • Functional Behavior Assessments
  • Understanding the Role of Positive Reinforcement in ABA Therapy
  • Selecting Reinforcers
  • Pairing ABA Therapy and Behavior Reinforcements Successfully
  • Modeling and Positive Reinforcements
  • The Difference Between Positive Reinforcement and Bribes
  • Positive Reinforcement vs. Punishment in ABA
  • Your Role as the Caregiver
  • Data Collection: How Parents Can Help
  • Keeping a Data Journal
  • Measuring the Success of Behavior Reinforcement
  • The Importance of Early Intervention
  • What is Early Intervention?
  • Developmental Screening: What to Expect
  • Why is Early Intervention Ideal?
  • Early Intervention and the Family

What is Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral therapy is an action-based therapy that encompasses various strategies and techniques often used to redirect or change maladaptive behaviors. In simpler terms, behavior therapy focuses on replacing an unwanted behavior with a desirable one while reinforcing its continued use. It revolves around the theory that behavior, whether good or bad, is learned and can be changed. Providing alternative reactions or responses through behavioral therapy can be achieved by implementing behavior reinforcement techniques.

Types of behavioral therapy may include:

  • Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Exposure Therapy
  • Social Learning Theory
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
  • Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Behavioral Therapy and Children

The most commonly used forms of behavioral therapy with children are Applied Behavioral Analysis and play therapy. The key to behavioral therapy with children is utilizing a behavior reinforcement system that rewards their positive behaviors and reactions while punishing negative ones. Consistency across all your child’s natural environments is critical in this technique’s success. Behavioral therapy has proven that it is beneficial for children with autism and continues to yield successful results.

Common Behavioral Challenges

While each child has different strengths and needs, there are often common challenges among children with autism. Learning to address these challenges through behavior reinforcement techniques, including consistent positive reinforcement, helps your child learn and develop beneficial skills and behaviors.

Behaviors to address first are those most challenging or potentially harmful to children with autism. These challenges may include:

  • life skills
    • executive function
    • personal care
    • self-advocacy
    • personal safety
    • acceptable social skills
  • aggressive behavior and self-injury
  • seeking and avoidance
  • mood instability, tantrums, and meltdowns, including harmful coping mechanisms
  • repetitive actions and restricting interests
  • ADHD, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions that may hinder learning
  • noise sensitivity and their reaction and ability to handle such environments
  • sleep disturbance issues
  • sensory issues and reactions

Addressing Life Skills

Even the most basic life skills can pose the most considerable challenges for children with ASD and their parents. Through behavior reinforcement strategies and techniques, children on the spectrum can learn to adopt many of these skill sets to help them thrive as they grow. While the level of success varies by child, dressing, eating, and appropriate behavior in public are all wins they can achieve through positive reinforcement. Life skills include:

Executive Function

Executive function is one of the most challenging life skillsets for children on the spectrum to master. It is often an ongoing process best approached by enforcing a solid foundation and building as they grow. Executive function skills include:

  • breaking down tasks or directions
  • organization
  • planning

Personal Care

Children with ASD often face challenges with necessary personal care skills that may come naturally to other children their age. These tasks often include:

  • coping with anxiety and stress
  • daily personal hygiene, including their brushing teeth or washing hands
  • exercising
  • proper nutrition
  • tending to a cold, including blowing or wiping their nose, covering when coughing, or expressing aches or fever onset


Children can learn to have their needs met through verbal or non-verbal methods. Through behavior reinforcement, they learn to express wants and needs, ask for help appropriately, and share their feelings and opinions.

Personal Safety

Helping your child learn this skill set is challenging but vital to their health and wellness. Learning personal safety skills may include:

  • stranger safety
  • leaving the house alone
  • crossing the street

Acceptable Social Skills

While social skills, in general, will be addressed in your child’s ABA therapy, learning acceptable behaviors falls under life skills. Behavior reinforcement strategies, such as positive reinforcement, helps your child learn what appropriate actions and responses in various situations may be. Actions may include:

  • tantrums at the grocery store
  • outbursts during church
  • interacting at a playgroup

Parents playing with a child for positive reinforcement.

Two Theories of Behavioral Therapy

Understanding the contributing principles to behavioral therapy will provide a deeper understanding of how essential behavior reinforcement is paired with your child’s therapy. The strategies and techniques utilized in behavioral therapy revolve around two theories:

  1. Classical Conditioning
  2. Operant Conditioning
1. Classical Conditioning

This theory focuses on your child forming associations between stimuli. A stimulus that evokes an automatic or natural response is paired with a previously neutral stimulus. Through the repetitive pairing of the stimuli, they begin to form an association, leading to the previously neutral stimulus evoking the response on its own. Classical conditioning utilizes several techniques, including:

  • flooding
  • systematic desensitization
  • aversion therapy
2. Operant Conditioning

The operant conditioning theory revolves around the use of negative and positive reinforcement and punishment and how they may be used to increase or decrease the frequency of a particular behavior. A behavior followed by a desirable consequence is more likely to be repeated, while a behavior followed by a negative consequence will be less likely to be repeated. The operant conditioning model often produces faster, more effective results, utilizing highly focused techniques, including:

  • shaping
  • modeling
  • punishment
  • reinforcement
  • contingency management
  • extinction

Operant Conditioning and the Work of B.F. Skinner

ABA therapy’s model is designed around the theory of operant conditioning and the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner. Skinner firmly believed examining observable external forces driving human behavior was more essential than one’s internal thoughts and motivators. While many behaviorists focused their work around classical conditioning theories, Skinner’s focus remained on the significance that consequences of one’s actions hold and how they influence future behavior.

Two Types of Behavior

Skinner was willing to acknowledge classical conditioning may account for respondent behaviors but was not convinced it could account for most of one’s learning.

Skinner developed a distinction between the two types of behaviors and their vital roles in how learning takes place:

1. Operant Behaviors

Skinner believed that one’s actions on the environment and their immediate consequence play a vital part in the learning process. He believed that:

  • Our conscious mind holds power behind our behaviors, whether automatic or spontaneous.
  • The consequences of one’s actions are the driving force behind what influences whether or not they are repeated.
2. Respondent Behaviors

He believed respondent behaviors occur naturally or involuntarily, and therefore, do not need to be learned.

Testing His Theory: The Skinner Box

Skinner developed many devices, but most notable was his invention of the Skinner Box. He created a chamber equipped with a “rewards bar.” Able to house a small animal, Skinner began testing his theories of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. Through the use of reinforcement and punishment techniques, Skinner was able to fine-tune his theories regarding the vital need for operant conditioning and behavior reinforcement in the learning process.

Understanding Reinforcement and Punishment

Two essential concepts of operant conditioning are the roles of negative and positive reinforcement and punishment.

Operant Conditioning Behavioral Reinforcements

Reinforcements include any outcomes that help strengthen or increase the repetition of a desirable behavior it follows. Two types of reinforcers exist and help increase behavior:

  1. Positive Reinforcers are favorable outcomes or rewards that are given following a desirable behavior. The addition of positive reinforcement strengthens the behavior.
  2. Negative Reinforcers remove unfavorable outcomes after an undesirable behavior. However, negative reinforcers strengthen the behavior by offering a desirable reward to avoid the negative behavior.

Operant Conditioning Punishment

Punishment refers to implementing an adverse outcome that will reduce the behavior it follows. Two types of punishments exist and help decrease behavior:

  1. Positive Punishment implements an unfavorable outcome to help decrease the response it follows. Think of this method as punishment by application.
  2. Negative Punishment removes a favorable outcome after an unfavorable behavior occurs. This method can be remembered as punishment by removal.

Positive Changes in Therapy

Skinner’s work paved the way for breakthroughs in the medical care and treatment of individuals with autism. For decades, autism was grossly misunderstood and typically associated with one having a psychiatric disorder. From the ’60s thru well into the ’80s, harsh punishment and abusive treatment were resorted to as a quick, easy, and effective way to create behavioral changes in individuals with autism. It was years before science demonstrated that through behavior reinforcement and, more specifically, the use of positive reinforcement, new behaviors and skills could be successfully learned and replaced with long-lasting effects. ABA therapy brought about a new approach, improving how a behavioral change in people with autism is handled.

Understanding ABA Therapy

To thoroughly understand the inner workings of successful behavior reinforcement through positive reinforcement, we must understand ABA therapy. ABA therapy examines how your child’s learning and behavior take place.

ABA looks at each child individually to determine strengths and needs across all areas, including:

  • communications skills
  • social interactions
  • self-care skills
  • quality of life
  • classroom readiness

This scientifically validated therapy stresses the importance of repetition and consistent practice of newly learned behaviors across all your child’s natural environments. ABA therapy utilizes positive reinforcement by providing your child with an enticing motivator that is not typically accessible to them. With your help, ABA specialists determine these reinforcers by knowing what is most treasured or motivating to your child and what they have responded well to in previous sessions or real-life situations. The use of behavior reinforcement, the motivator should always be paired with your encouragement, words of praise, and consistent repetition. Finding positive reinforcements, they are most likely to strive for, such as screen time, or a favorite snack, will increase the likelihood they will work to adopt a more acceptable response or desirable behavior. Through ABA’s continued teaching practice using positive reinforcement, the newly learned replacement behavior becomes more natural to them.

Antecedent-Based Intervention

Antecedent-based interventions, or ABIs, involve modifying events or circumstances that happen immediately before a behavior. Antecedent-based interventions are built around the theory that our environment typically influences our behaviors. This theory leads to the conclusion we can modify undesirable behavior and replace them with desirable behaviors to support the learning and redirection of children with autism and other developmental disorders.

ABA specialists decipher ways to change or modify antecedents within all your child’s natural environments. Your child’s ABA team may:

  • identify activities that catch your child’s interest
  • recommend changes to your child’s daily routine
  • offer your child choices during activities
  • make modifications to your child’s instruction or the method of delivery

Knowing the ABC’s

The three crucial building blocks of ABA therapy help us understand the foundation of ABA therapy and the use of behavior reinforcement techniques. These components are often referred to as the ABC’s and include:

  1. Antecedent: what occurs in your child’s environment beforea particular behavior
  2. Behavior: the response to or action taken because of the antecedent
  3. Consequence: the events that occur immediately following the behavior

Benefits of Implementing Antecedent-Based Intervention

Many children with autism have difficulty understanding the world around them. This challenge includes what is expected of them and what may or may not be acceptable behaviors. Children with autism often respond with or act out with undesirable behaviors. More often than not, this occurs when they find themselves in a new environment, situation or have deviated from their regular daily routine.

APIs help children with autism feel a sense of control. Control helps promote a sense of security, relieving stress, anxiety, and displaying undesirable behavior. APIs offer a chance for children with autism:

  • navigate through their daily routines
  • understand daily expectations
  • practice time management skills, including adhering to schedules and transitioning between activities

Functional Behavior Assessments

Before implementing an ABI, your child’s team of ABA specialists will conduct a functional behavior assessment. This assessment involves identifying factors that may be reinforcing undesirable behaviors. To effectively support behavior reinforcement techniques, modifications to the environment are made to eliminate undesirable behavior reinforcement. The goal of antecedent-based therapy is to:

  1. Identify the factors that are reinforcing undesirable or unwanted behaviors
  2. Apply antecedent-based interventions that help remove the reinforcement of undesirable behaviors

Understanding the Role of Positive Reinforcement in ABA Therapy

Positive reinforcement is a form of behavioral management known as one of the most effective behavioral reinforcement interventions for children with autism and behavioral issues. ABA therapy is used as a behavior reinforcement technique to decrease undesirable or potentially harmful behaviors and increase new and more appropriate behaviors. Behavior reinforcement strives to offer long term change in your child’s behavior. The use of this reward system, consisting of items or privileges your child finds most meaningful, makes the wanted behavior more likely to be adopted. Ultimately, the goal when pairing ABA therapy with positive reinforcement is for personalized rewards to provide enough encouragement that they eventually result in new behavior, skill, or response. If the desired behavior or skill isn’t demonstrated successfully, the reward is not given. The behavior reinforcement process repeats as often as needed, providing your child time to practice and learn the new target skills and behaviors.

ABA therapy also incorporates generalization, the process of carrying positive behaviors into environments and situations outside the clinic. In your child’s natural environments, they can continue to work on behavior reinforcement strategies with their family, daycare providers, and additional caregivers or educators. ABA therapy’s expansive reach covers a variety of skills to help your child thrive, including:

  • behavior in their home environment
  • behavior in various social settings, such as a daycare or playground
  • communication skills
  • self-care skills

Selecting Reinforcers

Selecting your child’s reinforcers is a crucial step and helps ensure the success of behavioral reinforcement strategies to meet their goals. Positive reinforcement rewards should be personal and meaningful to increase their desire to repeat the new and appropriate behavior. The reinforcers provide optimal results when they are items your child is most eager to receive. The greater the value, the higher the likelihood they will work hard to repeat the new skills and behaviors independently. Meaningful reinforcers have proven to be successful for children with ASD while learning to adopt new skills they can use throughout all areas, including life skills. With the help of the family, your child’s ABA therapy team, and educators, the consistent use of positive reinforcement helps implement change in maladaptive behavior and strengthens lasting behavioral outcomes. Think about what your child seems most excited about. It may be:

  • extra screen time on a tablet
  • watching a favorite show
  • a special toy

Your child’s team of ABA specialists will gather information and ideas from you when you begin therapy, as well as collect their data through observations. This data will help them select the best possible positive reinforcements that present your child’s most motivation. Behavior reinforcement techniques and strategies will remain under ongoing evaluation for necessary changes and fine-tuning throughout their therapy.

Mother holding daughter.

Pairing ABA Therapy and Behavior Reinforcements Successfully

Pairing your child’s reinforcers works best when accompanied by your encouragement and sincere words of praise. Consistency is critical and will help strengthen the efforts of you and their team of ABA specialists as you work towards their goals.

Modeling and Positive Reinforcements

Modeling behaviors is another critical behavior reinforcement technique used during ABA therapy. While all children learn best through modeling and repetition, behavior reinforcement techniques motivate children with autism to strive to attain meaningful rewards. Modeling the positive behavior or skill may not be an immediate success, and that’s ok. The modeling process will continue to repeat throughout all your child’s natural environments, as often as necessary. ABA therapy provides your child with the time and patience they require to learn and repeat the new skills and behaviors. When they feel they are in a safe environment, working towards a behavior reinforcement reward, they begin to strengthen bonds, strengthen communication skills, and build self-esteem.

Your child’s ABA therapists will work closely with your family, their educators, and additional caregivers to teach you how to consistently and adequately use positive reinforcement to implement changes and strengthen skills.

The Difference Between Positive Reinforcement and Bribes

Parents often question the difference between positive reinforcements and bribes. It is essential to note ABA therapy is not based upon encouraging new behaviors through bribing children with behavioral challenges. Let’s examine the differences:

  • A bribe is a reward offered before the desirable behavior or skill is demonstrated. A bribe’s purpose is to coax a specific action as repayment.
  • Reinforcers are only given aftera new, desirable behavior or skill is demonstrated. Positive reinforcement strives to guide the learning process through modeling, repetition, and verbal praise, accompanied by the behavior reinforcement reward for accomplishment.

Positive Reinforcement vs. Punishment in ABA

The answer to treating challenging behaviors in children with autism was once to incorporate punishment. The use of punishment was a seemingly effective way to address behavioral changes, yet it was a short-term fix. With the lack of education and understanding surrounding autism, a diagnosis of ASD was considered a psychiatric disorder. Yet, punishment sparked two significant concerns:

1. Fear and Mistrust

Punishment was seen as the answer to ridding children of their bad behavior. Rather than acting as a positive behavior reinforcement technique, punishment methods instill fear. This fear is not only of the action but of the person administering it, and sometimes the environment altogether. While it may temporarily stop certain behaviors, it does nothing to strengthen the bond between the child and the therapist or caregiver, limiting their learning.

2. Aggressive Behavior

Punishment also can create aggression in children. While modeling plays a crucial role in behavior reinforcement, it can send the wrong message when used to modify behaviors. A child who receives a spanking as punishment for undesirable behavior may associate the action with the emotion that accompanies it. The caregiver administering the spanking is likely angry, frustrated, and yelling. These characteristics often create aggressive reactions and behaviors in the child, rather than negating the original behavior.

While Skinner did find some effectiveness in positive punishment methods, he firmly believed the harmful effects of negative punishment were not worth the risk. Behavior reinforcement through the use of positive reinforcements far outweighed the results of enforcing punishment techniques.

Positive reinforcements slowly began to replace the use of punishment when treating patients with autism. ABA therapy’s new focus was removing abusive treatment as a behavior reinforcement technique, significantly changing how patients with autism were treated.

Your Role as the Caregiver

You play a critical role in your child’s success following ABA therapy sessions by understanding the importance of effective behavioral interventions such as behavior reinforcement. Your child’s ABA therapy team will create a plan consisting of various goals for your child to work towards accomplishing. Strategies involving behavior reinforcement will be introduced during your child’s therapy sessions, demonstrated to you, and meant to be implemented in your child’s natural environments. Suppose there are additional caregivers in need of guidance or training. In that case, sessions can usually be arranged to educate them in positive reinforcement at daycare, school, home, or other natural environments.

Data Collection: How Parents Can Help

Data collection outside of your child’s ABA sessions is critical to their therapy goals and overall progress and success. Your child’s therapists will collect their data during sessions but value and rely on your data collection as the parent. As a parent, you can provide insight into your child’s progress while in his natural environments. Your recordings shed a unique light on the growth and obstacles his therapists aren’t able to witness. Your data collection may lead to discovering why particular behaviors are occurring, or positive reinforcements aren’t working. Through collecting your data, your child’s therapist can take an in-depth look into why specific patterns of behavior may have formed in the first place.

Keeping a Data Journal

Parents are encouraged to keep a notebook of difficulties, concerns, and achievements. Keep track of what may or may not be working across all your child’s environments, which provides insight to your ABA team. You are also encouraged to keep a section of questions you may come across. A few helpful tips for what caregivers should include in their data journal:

  • keep a list of your child’s ABA goals for quick reference
  • note the environment you are in
  • behaviors you notice
  • the time of day
  • recent changes to the environment or their schedule
  • what currently motivates your child

Measuring the Success of Behavior Reinforcement

By consistently implementing ABA therapy interventions, new skills and behaviors will begin to emerge, needing less guidance or the need for reinforcers. Once they can demonstrate the use of the desired action independently, without prompting or the need for positive reinforcement, it is considered a successfully met goal or a mastered skill. Your child’s team will then update goals and continue to build upon their strengths and address additional concerns.

The Importance of Early Intervention

Your child’s brain is rapidly developing from birth to age three. Their neural circuits, or connections in the brain, lay the foundation for:

  • health and wellness
  • behavior
  • learning

Every experience your child has before reaching the age of three has a unique and vital impact on their brain’s development. As they age, it becomes more challenging to change these connections that have been formed, making early intervention critical.

What is Early Intervention?

Early intervention is a combination of services and resources for developmental delays and/ or disabilities. These services are available to infants, young children, and their families. The most common services provided during early intervention include:

  • ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)
  • Speech and Language Therapy
  • Occupational Therapy

Developmental Screening: What to Expect

An evaluation by a team of ABA specialists will allow them to assess where your child is developmentally. Developmental screenings provide an in-depth look into your child’s strengths and struggles. As their primary caregiver, you will be encouraged to provide valuable details about your child to help with further data collection. You will be able to provide information regarding your child’s:

  • cognitive skills
  • communication skills
  • fine and gross motor skills
  • behavior
  • overall physical and emotional health

The team will devise a plan incorporating behavior reinforcement techniques and strategies to help your child learn necessary skills and behaviors.

Why is Early Intervention Ideal?

Early intervention continues to make an incredible difference in the lives of children with autism spectrum disorder. Early intervention is ideal for implementing changes and behavior reinforcement strategies before their brains are fully developed, and healthy behavior patterns have been established. When services such as ABA therapy and behavior reinforcements are introduced at an early age, the success rate for long-lasting change is higher. Early intervention can make a significant difference in your child’s life by:

  • modifying behaviors before they become difficult habits to change
  • introducing new skills and routines
  • increasing their independence

Early Intervention and the Family

Early services benefit your entire family, not just your child. Your family will be provided with the recourses, tools, and support you need to work with your child towards meeting their goals. Proper education, support, and training will help you carry out behavior reinforcement techniques in all their natural environments.

Through early intervention services, your family will receive guidance and access to therapeutic sessions to help reduce stress and work as a family to work towards common goals for your child.

Take steps to support your child’s success through ABA therapy and behavior reinforcement today.

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