One of the reasons that people seem to get down on ABA, is the use of reinforcers. I’ve heard it equated to animal training. There is some truth to that analogy, and I’ve learned that is not such a horrible thing.
When we started ABA during early intervention, the program director spent a lot of time asking me and working with R. to determine what she really liked. At the time, it honestly wasn’t much. Other than balls or bubbles, she had a few stuffed animals she liked. She liked watching Sesame Street, but Elmo and friends weren’t BFFs yet. Naturally they wanted to use food items, and I bristled at this, but I compromised, and asked that they not use her meal time food as a reinforcer, only snacks and treat. As worried as I was, the food reinforcers actually did not work that well. She would quickly tire of whatever it was, and she was not always hungry. She had sessions for 5-6 hours a day at that time. If every therapist offered her snacks, there was no way she could eat it all.
The Program Director asked about using videos on the therapist’s Iphones as a reinforcer. I said my only concern was that R. might be more interested in watching videos and cry when they were not available. The PD said that if they were that motivating, they would do the trick.
The videos actually worked great. R. was really motivated to watch them, and she quickly learned that she was expected to do something before she could watch one. That sounds really simple, but there are really several things that the consistent use of a reinforcer taught her, even at that early stage.
- There are things she wants that an adult has to provide
- Her actions are directly responsible for getting her desires met
- If she pays attention to an adult’s requests, and complies with them, she will learn the actions required to get what she wants.
- She can wait for things she wants, even for a short time.
I know that there are some parents who think that children are praised, rewarded and bribed too much, granted these are generally NT parents. So what is the difference between a bribe and a reinforcer? The way I see it, a reinforcer rewards desired behavior after it is done. A bribe rewards a behavior whether it is desirable or not before it is finished.
A good example is crying. If R is crying and I know some gummies will make her happy, if I give her the gummies while she is still crying I am bribing her to stop crying. I am also teaching her that the way to get gummies is to cry. If I show her the gummies, and get her to stop crying and say gummies and then give then to her, I am reinforcing her use of words. I’m teaching her that yes I know what she wants to make her happy, but she has to use words to get it. Crying doesn’t work.
Now R. is really in touch with the fact that she is expected to do something to get her requests met. She is primed, waiting for a prompt to tell her what to do. We have to be careful to wait to see if she will say the word spontaneously. Sometimes I’ll tap the item, which is a mistake because she will copy my tapping, thinking that is the response I’m looking for. Slowly but surely we are hearing more spontaneous words.
I think that we all respond to reinforcers and even bribes all the time without thinking about it. It is really necessary to analyze all of the ways that we are reinforcing her behavior even if it is unintentional. I gave R. a piece of colored chalk and a chalkboard and she scribbled for a while until the chalk broke. She brought me the pieces, I assume she wanted me to put them back together. I gave her another piece of chalk. She broke the next one, brought me the pieces and I gave her a new piece. I was watching her and the first two times it seemed like it was an accident that she broke the chalk, it broke while she was scribbling. But the third time, she scribbled for a bit, and then intentionally broke the chalk in half and came to me for another piece. Even though I had her say chalk each time, she had quickly come to the conclusion that breaking the chalk was the key to getting another piece.
I suppose that someone who is anti-ABA could argue that the faulty methodology behind ABA’s teaching has led my daughter to make incorrect generalizations. But I really think that this is a reflection of how R. tends to generalize things. She does not make the same connections that I would. Her vision of cause and effect is limited, but with repetition and experience her skill in this area gets better and more functional.
Now she has the ability to understand first this and then that, as long as we are talking about something she understands. This is really useful. There are many opportunities to tell her if you do this, then you get that. I am working on getting her to wait for me when she requests something. She always wants me to drop everything and comply with HER request. I’ll tell her first I’m going to have a sip of my coffee, then I’ll get you a cookie.
I also find that when she needs to do something new or different that she is aversive to, if I explain it simply and give specific perimeters like counting- do this for a count of five, she is much more compliant.
Some people ask if ABA is constantly rewarding for desired behaviors, does the child spend the rest of her life looking for a reward for every task completed? ABA does actually have a system of fading reinforcers and using a hierarchy of more and less motivating items depending upon the difficulty of task. I’ve also found that while the therapists still use toys and food reinforcers, they also sing songs and do all kinds of silly games with R. that she likes. She asks for these activities, so it is like her reinforcer is doubly rewarding – she is rewarded for completing her task, and she is motivated to do something social.
I don’t see R. becoming like a trained dog, looking to perform tricks for treats. It’s more like she’s a social being in training. She’s making her own study and practice (with our help) of how rewarding just the act of socializing is, and how crucial engaging with others is is to getting her needs met. She’s also learning that while the world is filled with many unknowns, there are also plenty of great things.