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.


Functional Behavior Assessments

     Last time on the blog we discussed the four functions of behavior.  These answers to why a behavior occurs consisted of access to sensory input, to escape or avoid something, to gain social attention, and to gain access to a tangible item or activity.  Today we will discuss the process of identifying these functions through Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA).
     An FBA encompasses many different methods that aid in identifying why a behavior is occurring.  The goal of an FBA is to reveal the function of a problem behavior so that an intervention or plan can be put in place to reduce this behavior.  The three functional assessment methods are direct observation, indirect methods, and functional analysis.
     Direct observation is when an observer watches a client in their natural environment.  When the targeted behavior occurs the observer takes note of what happened right before the problem behavior (the antecedent) and what happens right after the problem behavior (the consequence).
     With indirect methods the client, the parents or instructors of the client fill out questionnaires and are involved in interviews that discuss the target behavior as well as what happens before and after the problem behavior.
     A functional analysis is a little different than the first two methods because instead of creating a hypothesis, it is used to test a hypothesis.  In this method, the instructor would change what happens before and after the target behavior in an effort to figure out what is causing the behavior.
     These three assessment methods make up an FBA and help identify the functions of a behavior in order to effectively come up with a plan to reduce the behavior.  Without conducting behavior assessments, it’s all a guessing game and could potentially make the behavior worse or have no effect at all.

The Functions of Behavior: Answering the “Why?”

     Why does Johnny rock violently back and forth at his desk and at recess too?  Why does Sue pinch her peers?  Why does Billy scream on his way to lunch? Why does Sally cry in the check out line at the grocery store? Behavior is simply everything that people do and the function of behavior provides us with a reason why a certain behavior is occurring.  The four most common reasons that behavior is occurring is to to gain sensory input, to gain social attention, to gain access to a tangible item or activity, and to escape or avoid something.
     Of the four underlying functions of behavior only one relies on internal pleasure as opposed to an external influence.  Some behaviors only occur in order to provide a person with some sort of internal sensation that pleases them.  Sensory stimulation explains why Johnny not only rocks at his desk when work is present but also at recess when there are no demands being placed on him.  This rocking behavior is not to gain the teachers attention or to escape desk work but to gain sensory input.
     The second function of behavior is to gain social attention or a reaction from somebody.  One student may laugh loudly during quiet time so that her classmates will giggle while another student may scream so that the teacher will look her way. Sue pinches her peers because every time she engages in this behavior her mother yells at her.  For Sue, it doesn’t matter that the reaction is bad because for some people “bad” attention is better than no attention.
     Next is escape or avoidance.  This function of behavior doesn’t seek to obtain something but to get away from something.  The lunch room is a loud place and Billy doesn’t like loud noises so he screams on his way to lunch so that his teacher will take him back to the room for silent lunch. Billy screams in order to avoid eating lunch in a loud environment.
     The last function of behavior is to gain access to a tangible item or activity.  Anybody ever buy their crying child a candy bar in the check out line at the grocery store to get them to stop causing a scene?  Every time Sally goes to the grocery store with her mom she cries.  The function of her crying is to simply obtain candy.
     There are many ways to identify why a behavior is occurring and to figure out the underlying function of that behavior.  An FBA (Functional Behavior Assessment) is a term used to describe many different assessments that allow practitioners and researchers to identify the reason behind specific behaviors.  Stay tuned to learn more about these assessments.

The Logo

I created this logo to be a visual representation of what I want Integrated Behavior Services to represent.

The outer arrow is ongoing and encompassing.  I wanted this to represent the integrated portion of this company.  Behavior is integrated into every aspect of a person’s life.

The tree with branches represents roots and growth.

The puzzle pieces are symbolic of learning and discovering.

The hearts are to show my passion and love for the children, adults, and families that I serve.


Until next time…

The Name: Integrated Behavior Services, LLC

There is a lot in a name!  When when picking a business name, it can rather daunting.  It is a lot like picking the name of your child.  It has to be 1) something you like 2) something that you will like for a long time 3) something that represents you/your business and 4) one that hasn’t already been a registered business in the state!

I picked Integrated Behavior Services.  Of course, the behavior services part was easy.  I went with integrated because my vision for the company is to work with the client and their behavior as it affects different aspects of their lives:  school, home, community.  According to, the definition of integrated is “combining or coordinating separate elements so as to provide aharmonious, interrelated whole:“.  For me, it is important to look at the person as a ‘whole’ and work with them in different environments.

I was a little concerned about the initials -IBS.  I didn’t want MY company that I would be pouring my heart and soul in to be confused with the health problem of IBS- Irritable Bowel Syndrome!  Lucky for me the word ‘behavior’ in the field is most often abbreviated as Bx….whew….so…the initials for my company are IBxS!!!

I am VERY happy with the name and the abbreviation!

Until next time…