How Much? How Often?: The Importance of Schedules of Reinforcement in Effective Behavior Planning

Prior to being trained in ABA, I worked as an outpatient psychotherapist specializing in behavioral issues in children. I had spent years working with children and their families devising simplistic behavior plans based on the idea of consistent rewards and punishments for particular behaviors. I was a competent therapist with years of experience and many of these plans, while rudimentary, were effective. But, some were not.

In retrospect, it is clear that my plans that were most successful were due in fact to the simplicity of the cases. In the more complex cases, I was much less effective. Typically, in these complicated cases, my behavior plans would initially have a robust effect, but then would lose their efficacy.

In reviewing my pre-ABA behavior plans, one of the major deficits was that I did not have a clear understanding of schedules of reinforcement. Schedules of reinforcement dictate how and when a particular behavior will be reinforced.

We are all subject to a variety of schedules of reinforcement. For example, one of the most common schedules is the timing of when we receive our paychecks. For many working people, a two-week period has grown to be the accepted schedule of reinforcement (in its simplest form, this is called a fixed-interval schedule). This schedule has been shaped over time and is due to a variety of factors. And because of its persistence, it is obviously effective.

But, while effective in one case, this two-week schedule may not be effective in others. For example, when you hire a contractor, one typically provides payment (reinforcement) upon completion of whatever job they were hired to do (simply, this is called a fixed-ratio schedule). They could be working on a job for many weeks prior to receiving any payment, but the reinforcement only comes when the job is complete. Again, because of its persistence over time, it is obviously an effective schedule of reinforcement for this type of work.

While I don’t want to go too deep into the weeds here, there are a variety of schedules of reinforcement and their use can become very complicated. What is most important is that for any behavior plan, each schedule of reinforcement must be individualized for the person you are working with. To ignore this fact is to set your plan up for failure.

Many “cookie-cutter” behavior plans that are found in books about parenting/teaching fall victim to a lack of understanding of schedules of reinforcement. For example, one program that focused on “increasing your child’s compliance with completing chores” provided a schedule of reinforcement in the form of an allowance (reinforcement) that was provided every Friday. Receiving this allowance was contingent upon the child making his bed everyday for five days in a row. Sounds simple enough. But what happens when the child forgets to make his bed on Monday? Is the allowance lost already? According to this plan, it is. This plan is destined to fail. And without any other available information, this failure would be due to the schedule of reinforcement.

Another factor to consider is the ongoing need to modify the schedule or reinforcement. The most common modification that is necessary is “thinning the schedule.” Thinning the schedule is the process of reducing the magnitude and/or the frequency of reinforcement. In most cases, the goal of thinning the schedule of reinforcement is to reduce the amount and frequency of any contrived reinforcement to its lowest level – while still maintaining the desired behavior. In the best case scenarios, the schedule of reinforcement may be thinned to the point where the use of contrived reinforcement is no longer necessary and the new behavior is then maintained through natural contingencies in the environment. One must be vigilant when thinning the schedule of reinforcement. And, as with making any alterations in a behavior plan, any changes in a reinforcement schedule must be based on behavioral data.

So, what schedule of reinforcement should you use? This is a complicated question that can only be answered in the context of each individual case. One simple, research-based guideline is that when teaching a new skill, one should initially provide reinforcement every time this skill is demonstrated. This is called an FR1, or fixed ratio one schedule (To confuse you even further, it is also called a CRF schedule…..). And, in general if you want to maintain an established behavior, you should utilize an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. This is a very, very basic guideline.

I’ve only touched upon the basics of reinforcement schedules. It is imperative that all people creating behavior plans and practicing ABA have a thorough understanding of schedules of reinforcement and their importance in creating and implementing effective interventions.

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