When “First, Then” isn’t working.


By Leanne Page, M.Ed., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

“I’m still waiting for the First, Then strategy to work. Every day I say “First car seat, then book. But getting my son into the car seat is still so hard. So I’m still waiting for the First, Then to work.” 

I am so pleased to hear that you are working to implement research based strategies like the Premack principle with your child! Let’s talk about why it’s not working yet and see if we can fix that for you.

Before we get to that, let’s make sure we are all on the same page. What is the Premack principle? It is a simple behavior analytic strategy to help increase desired behaviors.

Premack principle definition: “A principle that states that making the opportunity to engage in a high probability behavior contingent on the occurrence of a low frequency behavior will function as reinforcement for the low frequency behavior.” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007)


First _____, then ______.


The first is the low frequency behavior- something that just isn’t happening. This is something you need your child to do, such as getting into their car seat, eating healthy foods, getting dressed, etc.

The then is the high frequency behavior- something they like to do and will do a lot of if given the opportunity. It’s the fun thing, the preferred activity, potentially the reinforcer.


We all use this regularly in every day life.

First eat your vegetables, then dessert.

First homework, then screen time.

First finish your work project, then go for a coffee run.


It can be a useful tool to use as a parent in a more intentional way, too.  First car seat, then book just may work for some kids.

In the example given above- the book just isn’t reinforcing enough! The then needs to be reinforcing. We don’t wait around and keep saying the same “First ___, then ____” over and over. We find a then that works.

If what you are offering as the then doesn’t increase the future frequency of the first behavior- it’s not reinforcing. Keep trying some different rewarding items or activities as your then until you see an increase in that first task!

Read more about the Premack Principle on bSci21 here and here, and let us know how you have used the Premack Principle in the comments below!  Also remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed.) Columbus: Pearson.

Homme, L. E.; Debaca, P. C.; Devine, J. V.; Steinhorst, R.; Rickert, E. J. (1963) Use of the Premack principle in controlling the behavior of nursery school children. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, Vol 6(4), 544

Knapp, T.J. (1976). The Premack Principle in human experimental and applied settings. Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol 14(2), 133-147.


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 [email protected].

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2 Comments on "When “First, Then” isn’t working."

  1. Thank you Leanne for the article. This is a nice example of the use of First, Then and something useful I can share with my clients and their families. Thank you for your effort.

  2. Mathew Shawn Stokes BCBA | January 24, 2018 at 4:49 pm | Reply

    Please also remember to be mindful there may need to be some changes made to the “first” element in this Premack pair. If the task is so difficult or far from the current repertoire of the individual that there is no chance of them ever reaching the “then” of this behavior contract you are trying to establish, the situation will fall apart. Be ready to shape towards a more complex task demands.

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