"Scheduling" Positive Reinforcement to Improve Behavior

Categories: Applied Behavior Analysis; ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

Most of us like to be noticed and appreciated, and we know that others do too. We give and receive acknowledgment and approval many times every day without even realizing it. Getting attention is fairly easy if you have the communication skills necessary to ask for what you want. Children and adults who lack these skills, however, may be unable to express their need for attention in an appropriate manner. Instead, they may resort to disruptive, attention-seeking behaviors.

When behavior analysts work with individuals with special needs who seek attention in disruptive ways, they often use reinforcement as a method to replace problematic behaviors with appropriate ones. Reinforcement is typically a consequence for some good behavior that occurs. For example, a child makes his bed, and his mother rewards him with a hug.

Although reinforcement, or a reward, is often provided for good behavior, it can also be provided for other reasons.

“Noncontingent reinforcement” is a powerful technique that provides rewards regardless of behavior. With noncontingent reinforcement, rewards are consistently delivered on a schedule. The goal is to teach the individual that he or she does not have to make any extra effort to get a reward that is already scheduled to come.

Imagine a student who exhibits disruptive, attention-seeking behaviors during a classroom story time. The student may yell, stand up, or throw things – all actions that result in a reprimand from the teacher. Although the reprimand is not meant to be rewarding, it is, in fact, a form of attention. The student might be acting disruptively just to hear the teacher call out his or her name, or to get the teacher to stop providing attention to the rest of the group.

If the teacher used noncontingent reinforcement, he or she would provide attention to the student at regularly scheduled times. For example, the teacher might set a timer and ask for the student’s input about the story when the timer went off. The teacher might have the student turn the pages of the book, providing attention after each page is read. Providing attention in this way often reduces disruptive behaviors because the student no longer feels the need to act out to get attention.

Providing attention according to a schedule is helpful in classroom or large group settings when the attention of the teacher or group leader must be shared. If you create a schedule for providing reinforcement, you can gradually increase the intervals between the reinforcements. That way, the individual learns to wait longer and longer for a reward.When working with a large group, it is always important to try to make sure everyone is included in the discussion or activity. Casually asking someone’s opinion makes him or her feel important and less apt to seek attention via inappropriate means.

When you suspect that someone engages in disruptive behaviors to get your attention, try giving him or her some attention before they have the opportunity to act out. A high-five, a smile, or a pat on the back are great ways to acknowledge someone.

When these rewards are provided on a regular basis, his or her motivation to act out for attention is reduced.

by Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit