What to do When Positive Reinforcement Isn't Working

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

As an educator and clinician, I frequently encounter staff, parents, and teachers who use a variety of activities or items to reward or motivate their clients, children, or students. This strategy, termed “positive reinforcement,” can be very effective in supporting children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other special needs to learn new skills. It can also help them maintain a desired level of performance of a skill they have already learned.

Positive reinforcement refers to the process of providing a reward to strengthen a particular behavior. The theory is that the rewards, often labeled “reinforcers,” increase the probability of a desired behavior being repeated in the future. 

It is not unusual, however, that a potential reward or incentive does not appear to be initially reinforcing or loses its effectiveness over time. For example, a child may lose interest in receiving the same stickers for accuracy on math problems and his performance may decline. If this is the case, there are several factors to consider.

First, notice the time between the occurrence of a particular behavior and the reward that follows. For a reward to be most effective, it should be delivered immediately following the behavior. The longer the delay between the behavior and the receipt of the reward, the less likely it will be effective.

It is also important to make sure that receiving the reward is based on demonstrating a particular behavior. This helps the individual learn that behaving in a certain way means that he or she will receive the desired reward. The reward should only be presented after the behavior occurs. If the reward is available independent of the behavior, or is presented inconsistently when first leaning a new skill, the behavior is less likely to be reinforced, or strengthened.

Keep in mind that a reward can lose its effectiveness if it is overused. This is relatively common and can be avoided by having a selection of desirable rewards available and making sure that the rewards are still desirable to the individual. As is the case with all of us, preferences change over time, and certain items that were once highly desirable may become unwanted or may even cause a negative response.

Lastly, staff, teachers, and parents should understand that their clients, students, and children all have different preferences. Items or activities that are highly desirable to some individuals may not be at all desirable to others. Therefore, expect differences in what is considered rewarding among different individuals, as well as over time.

Using positive reinforcement effectively allows staff, parents, and teachers to help individuals of all ages and abilities learn and maintain appropriate and adaptive behavior. As a result, these individuals will experience more success with the tasks they undertake and more satisfaction in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

By Patrick F. Heick, Ph.D., BCBA-D

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder 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