How parents can use noncontingent reinforcement

By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

“Dear Behavior BFF, I’ve read several of your articles and notice a theme of always giving your child something they want as reinforcement. But as a dad, I’d like to just make my son happy by giving him cool toys and doing fun things together. I don’t want to encourage bad behavior, but can’t I just take him to the zoo or buy him a new toy for the heck of it?”

You point out something super important- the need for noncontingent reinforcement.

What does that mean?? Noncontingent reinforcement is the use of positive reinforcement that is not related to the occurrence of a target behavior.  In other words- it’s free reinforcement, not earned.

This topic hits close to home for me as my own 2 ½ year old has started asking for things with the permanent suffix of “I earned it.” It is important for her to understand that exhibiting certain desirable behaviors can earn positive reinforcement. But it’s also important for her to have access to reinforcing things and activities for free- noncontingently.

In a behavior plan to reduce behaviors and increase replacement behaviors, noncontingent reinforcement is delivered on a fixed schedule. This means that every xx minutes/hours/ etc, the person receives the reinforcement no matter what happened during that time frame.

Read more about delivery of noncontingent reinforcement and how to effectively deliver it as part of an intervention in this bSci21 article.

As a parent, it’s important to use both contingent and noncontingent reinforcement. There are times we need our children to earn the reinforcers and times when we can (and should) provide free access.

With all positive behavior supports involving contingent reinforcement, use them when you need them. Use them to increase desired behaviors during the more difficult times or use them to address a new problem behavior by reinforcing a replacement. Some behavior analytic strategies to do this include (but aren’t limited to) the Premack principle, token economies, and using prompts.

We can balance the earned rewards and the free reinforcement. A simple way to do this is to have a structured reinforcement system. Use it as you need to and go outside the system whenever you want- as long as you don’t see an increase in problem behavior.

An example from my own family- my toddler has a behavior chart. She earns a happy face two times a day. When she gets the happy face, she can have a treat from a specific treat box in the pantry. When she gets a certain number of happy faces on her chart, she can choose a reward from a specific closet. This is a token economy that is currently working for my daughter.

We haven’t always had this chart and we won’t always have it. She got a new little sister at home and we started to see some new problem behaviors. Now she gets rewarded for obeying and talking nicely and we’ve seen a huge decrease in those problem behaviors.

Did we have to take away all her toys and make access to anything reinforcing contingent on desired behavior? No. Playtime equals noncontingent reinforcement.  Fun outings equal noncontingent reinforcement. We’ve been to the zoo, the museum, parks, birthday parties, and all kinds of fun experiences since the chart started and these are completely independent from her reward chart.

To answer the original question- you can absolutely give your child reinforcement ‘for the heck of it’. Just be sure you aren’t doing it immediately following a problem behavior. You could inadvertently reinforce that problem behavior and cause it to occur more frequently in the future.

And pay attention to trends over time. Does your child have an increase in problem behavior the day after you go to the zoo every time? Maybe a trip to the zoo isn’t the best to use for noncontingent reinforcement anymore.

How has noncontingent reinforcement worked for you?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at lpagebcba@gmail.com.

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