Putting Positive Reinforcement to Work with Kids at Home

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA
Positive reinforcement is one of the most important principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA), a methodology that uses scientific interventions to address behavioral needs. It is a great tool in any situation when you want to reward – and thereby increase – good behavior.
As a teacher who works with children on the autism spectrum, I can attest to the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in the classroom. We use it on a daily basis when we give students praise, extra points, or other “rewards” immediately after they exhibit a desired behavior. We have found that this increases the likelihood that they will repeat that behavior in the future.
Positive reinforcement is also a great tool to use at home with typically developing children. What follows is an example from my own life.
Recently, in preparation for the beginning of the school year, I told my 9- and 10-year-old sons it was time to do some major house cleaning. We discussed the tasks that had to be done, and I told them we had to finish by a certain time so we could run errands. After a while, I could see the boys were losing steam. I tried reminding them of all of the things we had to accomplish that day. That didn’t work. I tried pointing out how much I had cleaned in comparison to what they finished. They were not impressed. I raised my voice in frustration. This demotivated them even further.
Then I realized I was addressing their “slacking off” rather than providing reinforcement for them to stay on task. I announced that I was going to award them tallies for staying on task and being helpful. If they earned 20 tallies by the time we had to leave for the store, I would buy them each a small treat at the checkout. They snapped to attention. I pulled out some paper, wrote their names on it, and started giving tallies as they completed their various chores. They were immediately engaged, completed the chores efficiently, and even approached me suggesting new chores to work on to maximize their tally-earning potential. This simple procedure got us out of the house in no time. And – even better – all three of us were in pleasant, happy moods!
What makes positive reinforcement so effective?  One major benefit is that it enriches a person’s experience by adding something, rather than taking something away. Instead of yelling at my kids and foolishly hoping my anger would inspire them to stay on task, I gave them tallies, which served as an opportunity to tell them they were doing a great job!
Using positive reinforcement provided a much better teaching and learning opportunity for all of us. My sons not only practiced cleaning skills like sweeping, dusting, and mopping, but they also learned about coping with a challenging situation, as they observed me calmly suggest a solution rather than yelling in frustration. They “bought in” to the job at hand, and loved choosing something at the store – an arrangement they viewed as fair.
There are some considerations for the effective use of positive reinforcement:

  1. First, do not bribe! If I had offered the boys a treat for promising to clean, that would have been a bribe, and would not have been effective.

  2. Reinforcement should be decreased over time. While the goal is to eventually have kids clean without enticements like tallies or candy, recognize that may not be your starting point. Gradually decreasing the reinforcement over time will get you there.

  3. Make sure you are offering a reward of the proper magnitude. Twenty tallies to earn a ring pop seemed appropriate for the amount of cleaning they completed. One hundred tallies for a high five would not be very enticing, just as receiving an iPad for an hour of cleaning would not be reasonable. 

This is a basic, every-day example that illustrates how to use a powerful tool of behavior change. Positive reinforcement is a great guiding principle to use next time you face a challenging behavioral situation. Why not give it a try?
Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is the Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at
May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit