Reinforcement: Types and Schedules

We’ve talked a little about identifying the functions of behavior in order to decrease their occurrences.  There are also behaviors we want to increase and encourage students to continue to do.  Reinforcement systems provide a way to reward a student for appropriate behavior.  Today we will discuss primary and secondary reinforcement and reinforcement schedules.

The two types of reinforcement are primary and secondary reinforcement.  Primary reinforcement is unconditional, which means it is natural and does not require learning.  These types of reinforcement include food, water, air, sleep, and sex.  Secondary reinforcement or conditioned reinforcement, on the other hand, is learned by being paired with another reinforcing stimulus.  These secondary forms of reinforcement include, but are not limited to, money, grades, and tokens.

A conditioned response is established by a reinforcement schedule.  These describe how and when a response is rewarded and play a big part in the strength of a response.  Just like with other things, consistency is key!  For a newly learned skill a continuous reinforcement schedule is used or, in other words, the behavior is rewarded each and every time it occurs.  After initial learning has taken place, a partial reinforcement schedule can be introduced in order to further increase the behavior and maintain these high rates of occurrence.

There are four types of partial reinforcement schedules: fixed-ratio, fixed-interval, variable-ratio, and variable-interval.  A fixed-ratio schedule is reinforcing a behavior after a specific number of responses while fixed-interval is reinforcing a behavior after a specific amount of time has passed.  Variable-ratio is reinforcing a behavior after a random or unpredictable amount of responses and variable-interval is reinforcing a behavior after an unpredictable amount of time has passed.

Now for a few examples of the four different reinforcement schedules:

  • Bobby has acquired the new skill of raising his hand when the teacher asks a question.  A continuous reinforcement schedule was in place and Bobby was immediately called on and praised for raising his hand every time this occurred.  He is now on a fixed-ratio schedule and the teacher calls on Bobby every other time he raises his hand in class and praises him for participating.
  • A variable-ratio schedule has been put in place for Christina who earns tokens for correct answers in math.  Christina, who has made great strides, earns a token after every 3-6 correct answers.  She doesn’t earn a token after every 3 correct answers, but instead, this number varies.
  • Victoria is a child on the move!  It has been quite a process teaching her to sit for longer than 30 seconds at a time.  She has come a long way and is now on a fixed-interval schedule and receives a piece of candy for every 3 minutes of continuously sitting in her seat.
  • Caleb is on a variable-interval schedule of reinforcement for using an inside voice at lunch.  During his 30 minute lunch period he is reinforced every 5-10 minutes.  He has the chance to earn between $0.75 and $1.50 to shop at the school store.

Hopefully these situations have helped you gain a little insight as to how reinforcement schedules work and later on the blog we will talk about different examples of positive and negative reinforcement and the numerous ways reinforcement can be delivered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s