Considering Reinforcement from a Different Angle

By Shelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me . . .

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you work with a parent, caregiver, teacher, or support worker to develop a plan to decrease a problem behavior for one of your clients, and then the plan isn’t followed?  I suppose there’s a possibility that I may be the only one who has found herself in that situation, but I suspect that’s probably not the case.  I recall at least a few times coming back to my office from a follow-up consultation and grumbling to my office-mate that the plan that I had developed in collaboration with a team wasn’t being followed.  I remember at times feeling very discouraged and quite ineffective.  I have to admit that I sometimes found myself frustrated with the team for the lack of follow-through.  And no matter what, I would wrack my brain trying to figure out what I should be doing differently.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to participate in two professional learning opportunities that served as “light bulb moments,” changing the way I looked at these situations and the way I approached supporting teams working with individuals with challenging behavior.

I attended a workshop by Dr. Gregory Hanley on the functional assessment and treatment of problem behavior (Hanley et al., 2014; Hanley 2015), and he made a point that resonated with me in a completely new way.  He pointed out that reinforcement does two things:  first, as we typically think about, when reinforcement follows a particular behavior, the result is that the behavior will happen more often in the future.  However, it was the second point he made about reinforcement that made such an impact on the way I now do my work.  If a problem behavior is happening, and the putative reinforcer is delivered, it has the effect of stopping the problem behavior in that moment.  Think about that for a minute.  If your teenager is nagging to borrow the car, and you hand over the car keys, the nagging immediately stops.  If your toddler is crying in her crib and you pick her up and give her lots of attention, the crying stops.  In both cases, those behaviors are likely to happen again the next time your children find themselves in similar situations, but in that moment, when the reinforcer is delivered, the problem behavior stops.

As I thought about that, I connected it with something that I had heard Dr. Timothy Vollmer (2013; 2015) talk about in a presentation I had viewed online, as well as one that I had the privilege of attending in person.  In both cases, he described a number of situations in which parents inadvertently reinforced their children’s screaming, hitting, biting, and so on by trying to guess what their children wanted and giving it to them.  Or in some cases, they didn’t have to guess; they knew what their children wanted, and they delivered it in order to make the behavior stop.  As Dr. Vollmer pointed out, it wasn’t that the parents wanted to increase the future frequency of screaming, hitting, or biting, but they wanted, or needed, the behavior to stop.  They were doing what they thought was best in that situation, and the behavior of the parent was negatively reinforced in a very powerful way when the problem behavior stopped.

As I connected the dots, I realized that I had only been focusing on half of the equation when I was trying to help school teams address challenging behaviors in the learners with whom they worked.  I had always looked at the A-B-C’s (antecedent-behavior-consequence) of the learners’ behaviors, but I hadn’t paid enough attention to the A-B-Cs of the adults’ behaviors.  As it turns out, the same contingencies that operate on the behavior of students in schools, or of children in childcare centers or clinics, or of youth in group homes, also operate on the behavior of the adults who teach and support them.  That shouldn’t have come as any great shock, but I began to realize that I needed to pay far more attention to the contingencies operating on the behavior of the teachers and support staff if any of the plans I helped to develop had any chance of being carried out effectively.  After all, if a student is screeching at full volume in the classroom, asking a teacher to withhold attention until the behavior stops and then to instruct the child to do an easy task so the reinforcer can be delivered may work in theory, but it is unlikely to happen in the real world of a busy classroom.  Even though the teacher or aide may understand that placing screeching on extinction and reinforcing an appropriate behavior will pay off in the long-run, that knowledge is unlikely to compete with the negative reinforcement that will result from stopping the screeching right now.

Although we may be strategically and intentionally altering variables to influence the behavior of our learners or clients to help them become more successful, it’s important to remember that the same principles that apply to their behavior also apply to the behavior of the adults implementing the behavior-change procedures.  Analyzing the contingencies that may be at work for the adults, and developing a plan that takes those into account, can make the difference between a plan that works in the real world and one that simply looks good on paper.


Hanley, G. P., Jin, S., Vanselow, N. R., & Hanratty, L. A. (2014). Producing meaningful improvements in problem behavior of children with autism via synthesized analyses and treatments. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47(1), 16-36.

Hanley, G. P. (June 12, 2015). Treatment and Prevention of Challenging Behavior. Lecture, Moncton, New Brunswick.

Vollmer, T. R. (2013). Antecedent Interventions and Considerations to Reduce Significant Problem Behavior.  Presentation, . Retrieved from

Vollmer, T. R. (January 8-9, 2015). New Directions in the Assessment and Treatment of Problem Behavior. Lecture, Fredericton, New Brunswick.


smclean-headshotShelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA is passionate about empowering educators with an understanding of behavioural principles to give them the tools and the confidence to ignite the potential in all of their learners.  She is the Coordinator of the interprovincial Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership for the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Shelley has worked as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, high school administrator, itinerant ASD consultant, and provincial Learning Specialist for ASD and Complex Cases during her career in education, which spans more than 17 years.  She has also served as a part-time instructor for ABA courses at the University of New Brunswick and Western University in Ontario.  Shelley holds Bachelor degrees in Arts and Education, and a Master of Education degree in Counseling Psychology.  She completed a Graduate Academic Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of North Texas and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2010.  You can contact her at [email protected]

2 Comments on "Considering Reinforcement from a Different Angle"

  1. Well done Shelley. Important point nicely explained.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly, but I was hoping to read examples of rewards, reinforcement, contingencies that could be applicable to adults–particularly teachers and behavior staff in an educational environment. One would imagine that the “payoff” for teachers implementing behavior procedures would be the increase of on-task, desirable behavior of their students, but this is often insufficient. Limited financial resources in most public institutions inhibit anything monetary that can be done, and reinforcers that we might use with our clients/students may not be enough (e.g., access to edibles, computer, extra free time). Are there examples that have been used successfully?

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