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Positive Reinforcement


What is it?

Positive reinforcement occurs when a student is immediately rewarded following a desired behaviour, increasing the likelihood of that behaviour occurring in the future. It is used to increase motivation to learn and use desired behaviours by accessing reinforcers based on the student’s interests.

A reinforcer is something (e.g. item, activity, or event) that increases the likelihood that a behaviour will occur again in the future. There are two types of reinforcers: primary and secondary. A primary reinforcer is something that meets a primary biological need such as eating or drinking. A secondary reinforcer is something that is “learned to be liked” or conditioned, such as money or tokens.

When do you use it?

Reinforcement should always occur contingent on (following) the desired behaviour. Additionally, as reinforcement should be faded (provided less often) over time, determining a schedule of reinforcement is important. A schedule may reward behaviour(s) following a specific number or average number of times (for example, after raising one’s hand to speak), or after a certain period (for example, after working on-task for a certain length of time). It is important that reinforcement is meaningful for the student, is delivered immediately following the target behaviour, and that the behaviour is explicitly labelled when the reinforcement is provided (e.g. “Good job stopping, here is your sticker!”)


  • Verbal praise (e.g. “Great job raising your hand!”; “Awesome walking in the halls!”)
  • Free time
  • Preferred activities (e.g. swings, computer time)
  • Food
  • Objects (e.g. toys, stickers)
  • Social interaction (e.g. smiling, leaning in, conversation)
  • Tokens (see Token Economy)

A reinforcement schedule can be used to fade out reinforcement so that the student is not rewarded every single time the behaviour occurs. For example, a student would initially be reinforced with a sticker following the completion of each math problem. Once the student completes tasks without engaging in problem behaviour, reinforcement could be faded to an average of every 3 tasks (i.e. when 2-4 tasks are completed, the student is reinforced with a sticker).

Each task is reinforced:

  1. 🙂
  2. 🙂
  3. 🙂
  4. 🙂

Average of every 3 tasks is reinforced:

1. ✔

2. ✔

3. 🙂

1. ✔


Points to consider:

  • Complete a Preference Profile or Preference Assessment to identify a student’s favourite things to use as potential reinforcers (see Preference Profile).
  • Be prepared to adjust reinforcers frequently when the student decreases motivation.
  • It can be beneficial to pair primary reinforcers (e.g. food) with secondary reinforcers (e.g. stickers, praise), in order to increase the student’s collection of secondary reinforcers. For example, by saying “Great work!” while giving a candy, the student can associate the verbal praise with the edible. Eventually, the student will find the verbal praise reinforcing and the candy can be faded/removed as a reinforcer.
  • When a reinforcer is being used to increase and/or teach behaviour(s), limit the student’s access to it at all other times in the day.
  • Ensure that the expectation to access the reinforcement is reasonable and attainable given the student’s current abilities. If the student accesses the reinforcer less than 80% of the time, consider decreasing the demand. If they are accessing it 100% of the time, fade the reinforcement, and/or increase the demand.

More information is provided in the POPARD handout on Positive Reinforcement



Fisher, W. W., Piazza, C. C., & Roane, H. S. (2014). Handbook of applied   behavior analysis. New York: Guilford Press.