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Positive Reinforcement in ABA Therapy

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Trenna Sutcliffe

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Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool within an ABA-based approach to treatment.

Reinforcement is the process of using specific consequences to strengthen a behavior. Strengthening a behavior means increasing the likelihood that it will occur again in the future, which is an important part of what kids work on in ABA therapy. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool within an ABA-based approach to treatment and can be used both during and outside of sessions. There are a few different types of reinforcement, which we’ll detail in the following section.


At the broadest level, there are two different types of reinforcement – contingent and noncontingent. Contingent reinforcement occurs in response to a specific action or behavior, and attempts to either encourage or reduce the action by drawing attention to it through reinforcement.

On the other hand, noncontingent reinforcement is not conducted as a follow-up to any action, but typically occurs as unsolicited or general praise. While this type of reinforcement is more difficult to tie to certain qualities, therefore making it less effective when it comes to ABA therapy specifically, it can help improve an individual’s self-esteem and bring them more confidence in all areas.

Within contingent reinforcement, there are a few subcategories that have to do with the intention of the reinforcer. Positive reinforcement is characterized by adding something to increase a certain response – for example, offering a child a sticker when they use their words rather than resorting to aggressive behavior to express their emotions. Contrastingly, negative reinforcement occurs when something is withheld to increase a response. This could look like holding onto a child’s allowance until they complete their chores, as the incentive of receiving their allowance can help motivate them to complete the task.

Punishment is another kind of contingent reinforcement and involves offering something negative in response to unwanted behavior. Extinction is another variety of reinforcement that can address the same unwanted behaviors but is based on taking away an existing privilege or reward, such as screen time.

In ABA therapy, positive reinforcement is the main category of reinforcement used, as it allows providers to harness the helpful aspects of reinforcement while remaining gentle and positive when working with children. At the clinic, we strive to appreciate what kids can do rather than fixate on what they struggle with, so punishment isn’t a part of our treatment approach.


What makes a reinforcer effective will vary depending on the person it’s being used on, but regardless of the individual, connecting a reinforcer to something motivating or interesting for the child in question will improve its effectiveness. We can refer to this characteristic as “quality”; if the reinforcer is significantly preferred by the learner, it will likely have a greater impact.

In an ABA session, clinicians will constantly assess the child’s preference to determine which reinforcer to use. This can look like a more formal question, such as “Do you want to play Chutes and Ladders or Candy Land?” However, preferences can also be determined simply based on the child’s behavior. For example, if they pick up a basketball and begin playing with it, that can be a good indication that basketball is an activity they prefer, at least on that given day.

Additionally, another factor that can impact the effectiveness of a reinforcer is its availability. If a learner is satiated on the reinforcer, it can lose its influence. Therefore, choosing a reinforcer that’s specific and not as easily accessible makes the object or activity in question more special to the child engaging with it, thereby making it a more effective reinforcer. This is why having specific tools or activities set aside for use as reinforcers is common for ABA practitioners, and can make sessions go more smoothly.

Finally, a third consideration when determining an effective reinforcer is the behavior it is reinforcing. It’s important to make the size or amount of the reinforcer being used match the number of tasks or difficulty of the activity that the child is working on. Having an appropriate relationship between the task and its reinforcer allows the adult providing the reinforcement to shift it in response to the way the task is carried out, and provide more positive feedback in the case of an unprompted or improved display of a behavior.


Praise can be a powerful positive reinforcer and is used in ABA treatment, but tangible or physical reinforcers are more frequently used because they are easier for children to associate with specific actions. These reinforcers can come in many forms and tend to evolve as a child progresses towards their personalized goals. To begin with, if a child is brand new to ABA therapy and accomplishes a task that they’re working on, they might receive something edible, like a piece of fruit or candy. This directly introduces them to the reward and clearly ties the reward to the behavior that preceded it. This kind of reinforcement contributes to a sense of instant gratification, helping the child form a positive association with the task at hand and therefore making them more likely to engage with it in the future.

Once a child gets more advanced and better understands the idea of reward, a concept like stickers or a token board can be introduced. In these cases, the reward is more symbolic and less direct but can evoke the same positive emotion in a child. To further personalize this category of reinforcer, our ABA therapists at the clinic make themed tokens to better connect with what learners love. Another strategy for reinforcement involving a sticker or token board is using them as a form of currency to build towards getting a more direct reward, like spending time on a favorite game or sport.


In ABA therapy, scheduling can be a helpful tool to regularly introduce positive reinforcement and increase the child’s overall enjoyment of a session. A continuous schedule is one of the most intuitive methods, as it involves reinforcing a behavior every time that it occurs. This more fixed approach can be helpful when starting to work with a child, as the density and frequency of rewards allow them to see the process of ABA therapy as something fun and exciting. These rewards can be provided in response to social behaviors, like eye contact or asking questions, or for dealing with a difficult situation, such as expressing frustration healthily or making personal connections with others.

However, a continuous schedule can be challenging to maintain outside of ABA sessions, as a therapist won’t be present for every occurrence of a behavior. This is where parents can get involved, as they can work alongside their child’s clinician to reinforce and encourage behaviors in environments outside of therapy, like at home or in school.

Another way of approaching a fixed schedule without rewarding every single occurrence of a behavior is through a fixed ratio or fixed interval method. With a fixed ratio, a behavior is reinforced after a specific number of occurrences – for instance, every two or three times a child demonstrates a certain behavior. The fixed interval method means that a behavior is reinforced after a certain period of time during which the learner uses that behavior. For example, if a child is starting to regularly use a new behavior that they’ve learned, they might receive some form of positive reinforcement once every two weeks or once a month, depending on how frequently they need reinforcement to continue engaging in that behavior.

However, as children gain more experience and advance further in ABA, it’s important to present reinforcement similarly to what will appear in the world around a child. One critical step in this process is to eventually move away from the fixed schedules of reinforcement, and instead adopt variable reinforcement schedules. In the variable ratio method, behaviors are reinforced after a certain number of occurrences, but this number varies rather than staying consistent. Similarly, the variable interval approach means that the behavior is enforced after a randomized amount of time – this could be after one minute, 15 minutes, or even half an hour.


It can be easy to view positive reinforcement as a strategy only useful for younger learners, as they tend to believe in the reinforcement and appreciate it more. Most young kids receive praise frequently and thrive on having their new skills or efforts recognized. However, older kids tend to be more shrewd when it comes to compliments, so applying positive reinforcement for this age group can be tricky. However, it’s important to remember that almost everyone receives and enjoys positive reinforcement, as it can come in phrases as simple as “Your hair looks nice today!” or “Thanks for emptying the dishwasher.”

Positive reinforcement is simply characterized by adding something, and what’s added doesn’t always have to be an immediate physical reward. As children get older, positive reinforcers can become more privilege-based. For example, if a child completes a difficult assignment on time, the reinforcer for that action could be extra time to play video games or watch TV. Genuine praise and reward have an impact on people at any age and don’t have to be complicated.

We hope these details on the use of positive reinforcement in ABA therapy can help you and your family through the treatment process.

For more information on the ABA and autism treatment services offered at the Sutcliffe Clinic, feel free to explore our website.