Positive Reinforcers for Teens

Everyone likes a reward for appropriate behavior – after all few of us are going to turn down a free lunch – and teens with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) are no different. To find the most effective reinforcers, speak to the ones who will be working towards them. For instance, I have a young teen who will do anything to be able to spend time drawing the Titanic but that is not going to inspire most people as a reinforcer. Another student simply wants to visit with a particular teacher at school. Also how you use reinforces is important. Some students need almost instant reinforcement of targeted behaviors thus something like quiet verbal praise may be appropriate. Other teens might prefer verbal praise, but given in front of their peers. Customize reinforcement to the individual.

Remember – the reinforcer is more than a reward, you are actively targeting improvement in a desired area, not giving something for a job well done.

Common Reinforcers

  1. Time on an electronic device
  2. Time to read/be left undisturbed
  3. Going out to coffee (I am lucky – our school has a cafe)
  4. Getting out of class early
  5. School wide reward systems

These types of reward activities are useful as they will work for all teens, thus you are not marking the teen with ASC as different. Pretty much all teens will do anything to get extra device time – providing it is free time on the device. In fact, I have only taught a handful of teens in over 12 years that have asked to do something else rather than use their device.

It is also common that teens I teach will ask to be released early if there is something happening at the school. Our Hospitality students regularly sell Frappes on Fridays to their peers at lunch times. The queue is long and I get plenty of targets met – regardless of nature by all students if they can have a 5 minute early mark to get to the front of the queue. It sounds like a reward, however it is highly motivational and focuses my students.

School wide reward systems are successful depending on a range of factors including what the actual reward system is. At my current school, teachers allocate points to students then these points are converted into an item from our shop – stationary, handballs, footballs and water bottles are very popular. Not all students are interested in these types of rewards thus the student who has had the most points awarded as not claimed anything because she has no interest in this type of reinforcer.

The list of ideas for reinforcers that can be used is extensive. Be creative, find out what the teen wants and work towards that.

More specific Reinforces

Areas of intense interest

This is about getting to know the teen and then providing them with time or something related to their area of interest. This varies dramatically however there is some research that found that interventions based upon areas of intense interest worked to increase motivation and improve social skills. Indeed for some teens Robotics camps are useful reinforcers and interventions (Kaboski et al., 2015).

Other activities I have done is spend some time with a student doing insect identification in the school yard, listening to countless stories of the Queen Mary Ghost ship and hearing way to many stories of video gaming and Mindcraft. Mindcraft is very popular among people with ASD (Choubina, 2018). All of these reinforcers are individualized and a reward for achieving certain targets. The Queen Mary Ghost ship regularly comes out for a student when he can get through a lesson calling out less than 3 times in the lesson.

Simple reinforces in the classroom

Verbal Acknowledgement

Never underestimate the power of a verbal acknowledgement (Organization for Autism Research, n.d.). Ensure the acknowledgement is clear, for instance; ‘I like how you spoke in front of the class, you spoke clearly so everyone could hear you and you did not mumble your words. You also greeted everyone well at the start of your speech. Well done.” This time of feedback allows the receiver to know exactly why you thought they did well. I once complimented a student with ASD in an email and he assumed I was criticizing his work because I only said “Great job” and not why he had done a great job.

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