If Your Behavior Plan Isn’t Working, This Might Be Why.


By Katherine DeCotiis Wiedemann, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

I’m going to ask you to picture yourself in two similar situations. Here’s the first:

You just landed a great job. It’s come after a string of mediocre, unfulfilling internships and part-time positions unrelated to your field, and you’re seriously excited. The HR manager asks you to come to the office to sign the paperwork and get things finalized, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The contract reads as follows:

We are somewhat pleased to offer you this highly-desirable position at LaborWorks, and hope you will find a long and fruitful career with us (even though you’re somewhat underqualified and your references were… eh). Your starting annual salary will $500,000 per calendar year. I’m sure this is exciting to you, because it’s well above what you might earn at another company, and frankly, kind of more than you deserve. Wait, can we delete that? You are likely salivating right now, and already mentally deciding on the cushion colors for the interior of your new yacht. We really want you to have that yacht, but let’s go over a few things first. 

Every day, we we will be monitoring your efficiency, attitude, work product and behavior in the office. A tiny man in a red cap will be coming around every 15 minutes to check on you. He will have a lengthy data sheet for recording purposes. He will not be very friendly, and he will smell somewhat unpleasant. If at any time, he finds you off-task in any way (including but not limited to daydreaming, searching eBay for a new bike, texting your mother, checking the Yankees score, staring at the clock, checking your ex’s Facebook, etc.) there will be an immediate deduction of $5,000 from your salary. This penalty can not be undone, and you will have no way to earn back the loss. Similarly, if any of your projects or reports are turned in after 5pm on the date they are due, there will be a $10,000 salary deduction. Sick days are a $500 deduction. Standing by the water cooler for intervals longer than 30 seconds are a $20 deduction per incident. Wearing navy socks with black loafers constitutes a $500 deduction, because that is a rather serious infraction. If the man in the red cap stops by and you are on a phone call with a client, and your demeanor is assessed to be less than “enthused,” the deduction will be $4000.

After each two-week period, you will meet with Human Resources to determine what your new salary is. The man with the little red cap will be in attendance, and he will require coffee au lait. If you get his order wrong, it’s a $100 deduction.

We want you to have that yacht though, and we just know you can get it (tee-hee). Just as a final reminder, we do not offer opportunities to earn back lost income. But you’ve got this. Go get ‘em tiger, and make us proud! Oh, and don’t screw this up.

Got it? Okay. Here’s the second scenario:

You just landed the same job. You’re just as excited. The same HR manager invites you in (although this one has M&Ms on her desk) and you show up just as bushy-tailed. Here’s the contract:

Hey there, and welcome to RewardCorp! We’re so excited that you’re coming onboard, and can’t wait to tell you about all the perks and rewards of working for our company. We all agree that we really hit the jackpot when you applied for this position, and we’re honored that you’ve chosen a career with us. If there’s anything we can do to make the transition smoother, please reach out any time of day or night.

We’re sure you’re wondering about the salary, which is totally understandable. Here at RewardCorp, we’re a little unconventional. Here’s how payment works:

We start you at a very competitive salary of $100,000 per year. As if that weren’t exciting enough, we offer weekly bonuses in a number of areas. These bonuses are tax-free, and are immediately pinned on to your bi-weekly paychecks. Here are the bonuses we currently offer on a weekly basis:

If you are on time (within 5 minutes) to the office all 5 days, you earn $100.

If you reach your sales goal for the week, you earn $200. For every 5% you go above your sales goal, you earn an additional $50 for the week.

If you refill the Poland Spring bottle at the water cooler without being asked, that’s $100.

Every time you bring the boss coffee, tack on $10.

Wednesdays we have a contest to see who can wear the ugliest shirt! If you win, you get $50.

Every time you do a random act of kindness for a coworker, consider yourself $20 richer.

And finally, whoever is chosen as the friendliest, most efficient employee of the week earns a whopping $500 to add to their paycheck!

Again, we are so happy you’re going to be a part of our team, and even happier to offer you these added incentives for going above and beyond. See you on Monday, and have a great weekend!

Take a moment to think about both job options, and then answer these questions:

  1. Which job offer would you rather take?
  2. If you were forced to take Job #1, how would you feel initially? How would you feel 3 months in? How would your work ethic be 6 months in? By 8 months in, what’s the likelihood that you will have burned down the building?
  3. Which job would you be happier at?
  4. Which job would you be more productive at?

My examples may seem a bit far-fetched and hyperbolic, but they’re really not. Sometimes as educators, parents and members of communities, we fail to see children for what they really are: tiny humans. They react to behavioral principles almost exactly the same way we do – granted, to different stimuli and on different schedules. We’re adults, and so we prefer money to macaroni and cheese, and we don’t need our paychecks to be delivered every 30 seconds in order to get to work the next day – but in all other aspects, adults and children are governed by the same principles of behavior.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked into a classroom to find an exasperated, frazzled teacher with her head down on her desk. She’ll look up at me with red, glassy eyes, and utter the phrase I hear most in education: “I’ve tried everything.” I don’t judge her, and I don’t belittle her, because she really has been doing the best she can with the tools she has. It’s my job to give her shinier tools.

I ask her, “What’s the reward system you have in place currently? Maybe I can help.”

The conversation goes like this:

Teacher: “Well, when he comes in to class every day, he starts out with 10 tokens.”

BCBA: “Okay, that’s good. Then what?”

Teacher: “Every time he calls out, he loses a token.”

BCBA: “Alright…”

Teacher: “And every time he distracts a classmate, he loses a token.”

BCBA: “Go on…”

Teacher: “And when he leaves the classroom without permission, he loses two tokens.”

BCBA: “Got it. So how many tokens does he usually have at the end of the class period?”

Teacher: “Usually 0. Sometimes 1.”

BCBA: “And how many tokens does he need to earn something? What does he earn?”

Teacher: “We told him when he gets to 30 tokens, he can go to the computer room and play a game he likes.”

BCBA: “And how many times has he gotten to play the game?”
Teacher: “He hasn’t.”
BCBA: “And how long have you been running this plan?”

Teacher: “5 months.”

And just like that, it’s abundantly clear to me that this kid will never earn the computer game. Heck, he probably doesn’t even like the computer game anymore – it’s been 5 months. And halfway through the class period, when he’s down to 3 tokens, he has absolutely no motivation to stay appropriate because the window has already closed on him. Rewards are nowhere in sight.

Do you see the issue? There is hope though, and it’s our job as behaviorists to bring that hope in a shiny box and make things work and help the teacher with those bloodshot eyes. We show her how it’s better to create earning potential than to rule with response cost (the removal of that potential). We show her how easy it is to create behavioral momentum once the child starts realizing that rewards are in sight – and not that hard to get, either. He puts it together, and it clicks in his brain. We change the schedule of reinforcement to make it more immediate, easier to achieve – and then we slowly fade it out, instead of doing the opposite.

One of the most frequent mistakes I see in behavior plans and reinforcement schedules is that we set kids up to fail. We take away for the bad behavior instead of giving for the good behavior. We lavish attention upon the negative and overlook the positive. We offer them rewards on Friday afternoon if they can be a perfect angel Monday through Thursday, and it never happens. But we would probably be able to work up to it if we did things a little differently.

So the next time you’re writing a behavior plan for a middle school student with ADHD or figuring out a bathroom sticker chart for your own child, try to picture them as tiny humans getting ready to start one of those jobs I wrote about. Which one will they be happiest at? Which one will make them most productive? In which one would you rather be their “boss”? Help them earn that yacht. Hey, maybe one day they’ll remember what you did for them and let you borrow it for a weekend.

Let us know your experiences with “tiny humans” in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Katherine WiedemannKatherine DeCotiis Wiedemann, M.A., BCBA had her very own behavior intervention plan as a kindergartner in 1989. She had to earn five smurf stickers every morning in order to go to recess. Katherine eventually graduated from kindergarten and beyond, and after a false start as a comedic actress (she dropped out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) she found herself very at home in special education and behavior analysis.

After 10 years in the field, she founded Every Child Behavior Solutions, a NJ-based consulting practice that provides behavior-analytic services to school districts, families and anyone else who asks. She loves public speaking, and has done countless school in-service presentations about ABA, as well as for pediatric groups and medical students at the top hospitals in the state.

Although the first chapter of her career focused mostly on children with autism spectrum disorders, she has also spent a good deal of time in general education and specializes in the school-based treatment of ODD, ADHD, OCD and anxiety disorders. One of her short-term goals is to convince the world that ABA is not just a teaching tool for autism (although it does that well), and that behavior analysts are not all condescending blockheads (although some may be). You can contact her at [email protected].
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10 Comments on "If Your Behavior Plan Isn’t Working, This Might Be Why."

  1. Gunnar Ree | May 5, 2016 at 6:42 am | Reply

    Supreme commandment of applied behavior analysis: Catch’em being good.

  2. Hello Katherine,

    Thank you for this excellent article on setting up effective reinforcement plans that really support success and achievement. My tiny nonverbal human with autism, now a big strong teenager, blossomed after I figured out how to deliver learning in tiny slices so that he had constant success and reinforcement. While many autism families fear the teenage years, my son flourished. Everything “clicked” for us.

    Thank you!

  3. Alex Delange | May 5, 2016 at 9:47 pm | Reply

    Thank you for an awesome, simple, yet “conceptually systematic” read! I too believe whole-heartedly that we must look for ways to reward small steps, and for some of our kids, just being at school all day is an achievement in itself, and must be rewarded. This has been a difficult idea to get across however when we can show positive, lasting change through positive reinforcement and schedules, it sure does help ABA loo good, not to mention how great it makes our clients feel!

  4. Really very nice blog information for these one and more technical skills is improved; i like that kind of post.

  5. Heather, BCBA | June 25, 2016 at 11:59 pm | Reply

    Love this article!! Great explanation!! It is very hard to explain to preschool/school age teachers and get them to understand that we want to focus on the appropriate behaviors not the inappropriate behaviors. (Even if they rarely happen at first) Most have a very hard time doing this! They’ve been focusing on the “inappropriate” behaviors for so long, a lot of times they are not even able to identify one appropriate behavior the student does exhibit when asked. Setting our clients up for success is so important but can be very challenging. Although, I believe, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Great article!!

  6. Katherine, this is a GREAT description for parents and teachers alike! Kids think just like we do — why would we try to motivate them in ways that would de-motivate us and think it’s going to work? I don’t know… but I see it every day. Thank you for this!

  7. I am so excited about this article and how it provides such a meaningful picture for those less familiar with reinforcement and response cost. I am going to be sharing this with the team members (teachers, mental health providers, instructional assistants). Though many are eager to see ABA applied, few seem to have a clear understanding of how our culture tends to focus on negatives and taking things away. I expect a few to have big “A-Ha!” moments! Thank you, Katherine!

    Todd, is there a possibility of having a printable format accessible here?

    Thank you!

  8. It is also important for everyone to understand the principle of providing non-contingent reinforcement if there are no appropriate behaviors to reinforce right away. In order to pair the system with the reward, this is often not done at all, which is a huge contributor to the problem. The idea of teaching the reward system in and of itself it often overlooked and it’s unfortunate for the student. Also, so many times, I have seen the token chart which reflects “the rules” of the classroom. If the child understood or was able to follow the rules without more intensive teaching, there wouldn’t have to be a token chart in the first place. I would love to give presentations on the concept of reinforcement from the very beginning of working with a chid in order for more people to understand how important reinforcement is, as it is is defined as any stimulus that is added to the environment that increases behavior. The idea that people inadvertently reinforce inappropriate or other behaviors that were not present in the first place is also overlooked. More articles like these need to be shared, especially with classroom teachers and aides who are often presented with a reward system to use without proper training or understanding of how reinforcement can be introduced and manipulated in so many ways to improve and shape responses, increase rate of learning, etc. Response cost should be a last measure and used sparingly. I always like to see a 80%:20% ratio of reinforcing statements to corrections in general as a guideline, otherwise I feel as though the child Is not learning in a meaningful way and practicing correct/quality responding.

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