I can't tell you how many times I hear people say, "What does the child work for?" When that question is asked it tells me one thing: Whoever is asking the question has no intention of building internal motivation when working with the child. There is this unfounded assumption that children with ASD will only engage in learning activities if they get some sort of tangible reinforcement (i.e. food, candy, drink, toy). A large percentage of the children with ASD that I have worked with and supported did not need tangible reinforcement very often as long as the activities they were expected to engage in were in fact reinforcing. To me, that is the key: Instead of reinforcing kids for engaging in undesirable learning activities, make the activities themselves reinforcing. There are many ways to make learning activities reinforcing for children with ASD. Here are a few ideas (please share some additional ideas):
1. Embed the students special interests and fascinations into the learning activities themselves: For example, instead of allowing a child to play with his Thomas the Train toy after sitting for a book, read a book about Thomas the Train and use the train toy as a prop.
2. Access the child's strengths: Often times children with ASD seem unmotivated, but the truth is they are more anxious and frustrated than unmotivated in many situations. If the task at hand requires the use of communication, social, or cognitive skills that the child does not have, of course the child would not want to engage. For example, if a child has a strength in reading words but has great difficulty answering questions during group discussions, you can motivate the child by having the child read the answer to the question. After the child is comfortable reading the answer, you can start fading that out and increasing the child's ability to respond to questions without the written words.
For more information on assessing students' strengths and interests, click HERE.
3. Make yourself a conditioned social reinforcer: Back in the old days of implementing discrete trial trianing programs with kids, I certainly did not establish myself as a conditioned social reinforcer. In fact, when I showed up, the kids would run in the opposite direction begging for mercy. I have learned throughout the years that if I eliminate my "teacher voice" and act more natural, warm, and inviting, kids will be more motivated to engage with me. Duh!
4. Ensure success: When you are successful at something, doesn't it feel good? Of course! Then, why wouldn't we think that if children with ASD can have success during learning activities that the success itself can often be the positive reinforcement. To ensure success, make sure the tasks are developmentally appropriate and that the child is set up to achieve the desired outcomes. If you have to continually provide high levels of prompting, the task is probably not developmentally appropriate.
5. Use Natural and Social Reinforcement: Before jumping to the conclusion that you need to use tangible reinforcers, try using only natural and social reinforcers. Natural reinforcers are consequences that would naturally occur following a particular behavior. For example, if a child says "ball," the natural reinforcement would be access to the ball. If a child says, "I need help," the natural reinforcement would be someone helping the child. Social reinforcers are things such as specific praise, smiles, high fives, tickles (when appropriate), thumbs up, etc. While we don't want to go overboard with social reinforcers, when used in a natural fashion they are quite powerful. And that goes for all people. When my book came out, the first person I showed it to was my mom so I could get tons of specific praise 🙂
Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA