Lacking Motivation? The true meaning & methods behind our most powerful tool: REINFORCEMENT!

Conducting Preference Assessments:

Why conduct preference assessments?
Here’s the thing… if you have ever tried to make a change in your student’s behavior WITHOUT having a powerful reinforcer, you know that is a lot harder and a lot less effective than if you had something the student REALLY wanted! Well, the reason it wasn’t working is that it was not actually a reinforcer. What if the “reinforcer” for all the work you put in to help your students during the school day, after school, on the weekend, etc. (let’s be real, teachers work HARD!) was a smiley face sticker (I mean ONLY a smiley face sticker. In place of your paycheck…). Would you keep doing it? Mayyyybe not.

In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis, the term “reinforcer” is used only for items, activities or other rewards which increase the likelihood of a behavior happening again in the future. So if you want to know if it’s truly a reinforcer – look for the behavioral change!

The best starting place? Find things your student really likes by conducting preference assessments! Once you get through this first step, you can begin to observe and assess whether or not providing this item/reward to the student for engaging in a desired behavior (or the absence of an undesired behavior) causes an increase in those desired behaviors (or an increase in the amount of time the undesired behavior is absent).

 Ok so where do I start?
1.     Develop a list of potential reinforcers.
o   Observe your student throughout the day.
§ Check to see what items the student gravitates towards:
·         Watch to see the types of objects your student is interested in (e.g., things that are wet vs. dry, big vs. small, colorful vs. black and white, types of textures, smells, and other features, etc.)
Now think about whether these items/activities are appropriate as rewards, if not consider different items or activities you could provide the student which are more appropriate (e.g., playing with glue may not be appropriate, but applying body lotion may serve as a replacement for this).

§ Look at the types of behaviors your student engages in:
·         Watch to see how your student manipulates items (e.g., spinning, smelling, rubbing on parts of own body, holding up to light or to own eyes, etc.)
Now think about whether these activities are appropriate as rewards, if not consider different items or activities you could provide the student which are more appropriate (e.g., if the student is interested in smelling materials or individuals, a sensory box with various different scented items could work – try bottles of oils, different spices, scented stickers, etc.).
o   Ask your student’s parents:
§ Parents are always an invaluable resource when getting to know your student. Check in with them, perhaps sending a survey home to find out the types of things their child spends most of his/her time doing, is interested in, seeks out at home, in stores, etc. 
§ While you’re on the subject, find out what kinds of restrictions the student has. Some parents may not want edible reinforcers used (or only in smaller quantities, less frequently, only healthier options, etc.), there may be food allergies, perhaps your student will ingest dangerous substances when playing with specific toys, etc. 
o   Ask your student!
§ For students with higher verbal abilities, simply asking may be effective, for students who do not express their interests as well, having them sample things in their environment, exposing them to items in different environments, or perhaps bringing them to a store and looking to see what items they gravitate towards.

2.    Conduct your preference assessments.
o   Create a list of all possible items. Split the list into edible vs non-edible items, you will want to assess these separately. If it is a very long list, you can split them up into multiple lists, then take the top few items from each and assess together.
o   There are two types of preference assessments covered in this resource, though these are not the only types out there. If you’re interested in finding out about other options, feel free to reach out to me or consult some other Autism/Applied Behavior Analysis resources! These are the two I use most often with my students which I have found provide helpful results and are fairly simple to administer and assess.
o   Multiple Stimulus Without Replacement (MSWO):
§ In this preference assessment, you are providing the student with various items and allowing him/her to select an item, once it is selected the item is removed (not replaced), then the student will select from the remaining items until all have been chosen or the student stops selecting items altogether. 
o   Paired Choice:
§ In this preference assessment, you are providing the student with two items from your list (by the end of the assessment every item will have been paired with all other items once) and ask the student to select one. 

3.    Analyze your data (after you have repeated your preference assessment for a second time, on another day, to see if the results are consistent). Review your data and look to see which items are selected most often and in what sequence. The items which are chosen first in the MSWO or which are selected regardless of the pairing most often in the Paired Choice assessment are the ones you want to use to create behavioral change (when I refer to behavioral change I don’t just mean reducing challenging or inappropriate behaviors, but also increasing skill performance!)

4.    Test it out – start using those rewards and see what happens!

Check out my Behavior Data Resource for more on this subject. The resource includes specific instructions for setting up your MSWO or Paired Choice preference assessments, a sample parent survey, editable & PDF data sheets for each assessment, as well as resources for daily behavior data collection, ABC data collection, etc.


Best of luck to you and your students!!
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