Reinforcers and How to Find the Right One to Make It Work

Whatever skill or behavior we want to increase in the classroom, using positive reinforcement is a tried and true method of increasing appropriate behaviors or academic skills. Using positive reinforcement correctly is imperative to increasing desired behaviors or skills and transitioning toward building independence. Today I want to share about reinforcers and how I used them in my classroom as part of a positive reinforcement program a special education classroom.


In my classroom, I made sure I used finely tuned incentives that were tailored to each child's likes and preferences because my positive reinforcement program and the reinforcers used were at the heart of everything we did. Reinforcers kept the classroom functioning; it helped kiddos with strong ideas about what they thought they should make better choices. Having an effective reinforcement program helped keep us moving forward. It helped them to see that one more big push to practice this next step in math could be rewarding.

Having the correct reinforcers and breaking down tasks and or behaviors down into segments a students would complete, were two of the most important components of the my classroom reinforcement program.  Here are some pieces of  my positive reinforcement program that worked for me.


I found it imperative to always have a meaningful reinforcer. If the reinforcer wasn't an important activity / item to the student, I saw little improvement.  One way I tried to always have the best reinforcers for each child was by using a reinforcer inventory with every student. This form was administered to every student at the beginning of each school year. I kept it updated by reviewing it every grading period. As we all know, things children like change frequently so I often found myself updating it anytime I was experiencing difficulty with a child's behavior program. This helped me make sure I had the most effective reinforcers. It wasn't always the answer, of course, but it was the place I started to reevaluate what was going on.

When reinforcers aren't working it can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the child has matured and their interests have changed. Sometimes the item just isn't such a preferred item any more and other options need to be sought out.

Here is an example of a reinforcer inventory I have used in the past. I used it when a new student entered my classroom, at the beginning of every school year with each student, plus periodically during the year whenever I felt the current reinforcers weren't working any more.

 Reinforcer Inventory


Observation is a vital key in determining what is reinforcing for someone. What activities do they gravitate to? What items evoke the most response. Do they play with other students? When out around school grounds, is there a staff member who is important to the student? Observation and establishing a real relationship with the student is a great way to determine the best reinforcers to use. Sitting down with the student and talking about things they find rewarding can provide such insight in about that child and what things mean to him.


I have found reinforcers are better when kept simple. Don't complicate your life any more than it needs to be. Reinforcers do not have to be elaborate. They do not need to be expensive. They do not need to be complex. They do NOT need to be food all the time. Last year, I had 8 students. We used food as a reinforcer for 1 student. The other students were more interested in things such as play activities or pairing up for activities. Of course any time you use food, you have to keep in mind allergies and I always made sure to include the parent in the behavior plan so they were aware of what we were doing.

Let's look at some simple reinforcers. The simpler the better. Here are some I have used. I'm sure you have more.
Collecting sticky notes
paper clips
keys (real or paper), read to a buddy teacher, 5 minutes reading a book, spend 5 minutes with a friend in another classroom, computer time, iPad time, take a walk, collect leaves, get a drink from the water fountain in the hall, draw a picture, spend time in the quiet area, listen music on an iPod, play with thera-putty, jump on the mini-tramp, walk the balance beam, spend 5 extra minutes at PE. sit in the spinning chair. Even getting  3 minutes of a staff members attention can be a powerful reinforcer at the right time with the right student. My favorite of that small list is the sticky notes. At that time I had never considered something so mundane to me to be so important to a child.

I had a set of brothers in my class one year who loved orange juice. So I bought a bottle of it and kept it in the refrigerator in the classroom. As a reinforcer for increased attention, they got a little juice. For these boys, it turned out they rarely got juice at home and with their parents' permission, this reinforcer was so powerful, it actually lasted almost the entire school year for one of the boys. The older one developed a preference for building with blocks, so we switched to that as a reinforcer for him.

I had a student who loved bright colored sticky notes and loved to collect them. For his reinforcers for awhile, he received a sticky note for doing 5 math problems or for asking to go to the bathroom. Eventually his preferences changed and he moved on to other items and activities as reinforcers. It certainly was one of the easiest, simplest reinforcers.

Sometimes some special time with a staff member is the valued reinforcer, even more valued than food items. Perhaps going to another class and helping another teacher or student is reinforcing. I had a student once who worked for the opportunity to take off his shoes and wear socks in the classroom. We gave him a short amount of time following the completion of a task in which he could take off his shoes and walk around in his sock feet. I have never seen math work get done so quickly and never saw a happier boy in socks! I have had students who like to go out for a walk or go visit the office staff or the head of our school special ed department. Its amazing what will work.
Remember, incentives and reinforcers don't have to be big and elaborate. What matters is how valuable it is to the student.


In any behavior plan we want to aim for success, so remember to always have plan to fade the reinforcers. I had a little boy once who worked for gummy bears. It was the only thing at the time that was effective to him. One of his main goals  was learning to sit in a chair at an instruction table.  At the beginning of the year, when asked, he would go to the chair and touch it but never sit down. At first he received a portion of a gummy bear for just touching chair, then we progressed to touching his leg to the chair, and sitting in the chair even if just for a moment. Each and every time he did this he received his gummy portion. Once he was successful at sitting, even just momentarily, we began to give the gummy bear out every other time. Then we moved to every third time and continued fading out the reinforcer until he would sit in his chair as requested. Eventually, we were able to fade out the gummy bears as reinforcers. He learned to love pats on the back, verbal praise and even became able to be proud of himself.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to take part in a BLAB with  group of  special educators. We shared our experiences and ideas about reinforcers in our classrooms.

Thanks for stopping by Special Ed Spot today.
Till Next Time


  1. Step 2 Remove all interior parts - shelves, shelves, drawers, in brackets. You may be surprised by the amount of engineering to come out. Examine the tight mixture and set it to soak and gently in the kitchen sink while cleaning the appliance itself.
    شركة تنظيف فلل بجدة
    شركة تنظيف بيوت بجدة
    شركة تنظيف شقق بجدة

  2. What is a reinforcer?

    For a methodological behaviorist, a reinforcer is any event virtual or real, that changes any characteristic of behavior, from rate to intensity to form.

    For a radical or biological behaviorist, a reinforcer is a positive change in a specific neurologic state that reflects an affective tone or feeling.

    The latter was proposed by the radical behaviorists John Donahoe and David Palmer in 1994, and was independently confirmed by the affective neuroscientist Kent Berridge in the same and following decades. Donahoe and Palmer proposed a neurologically grounded definition of reinforcement. Reinforcement reflected a discrepancy principle, when behavior is continually mediated by the activity of dopamine neurons or dopaminergic system elicited by continuous correction error between predictions and outcomes. Dopamine scales with the importance of the reinforcer, and is responsible for a feeling of energy and arousal, but not pleasure. The former principle is still the guiding principle of present-day behaviorists or behavior analysts, but discrepancy principles are now core to incentive motivation theories in affective neuroscience.

    The dichotomy between both principles is stark in both principle and practice. Whereas a methodological behaviorist is concerned about the effectiveness of reinforcers, a radical behaviorist Is concerned about how reinforcement induces affect. To a teacher, parent, society, or politic, the effectiveness of reinforcement is paramount. However, for an individual, affect in reinforcement is of first importance. The latter is reflected in the recent work of Berridge, who emphasized that behavior change must be oriented to eliciting continuous positive affect, which is epitomized by an active and meaningful life. With this perspective, the metric for success for behaviorists is not societal control, but individual freedom, and a behaviorally engineered society that focuses on constructing the avenues that enrich the meaning or value of life, or a fully realized self-control in a free society.

    John Donahoe: Behavior Analysis and Neuroscience

    The Joyful Mind: Kringelbach and Berridge

    ‘A Mouse’s Tale’ Learning theory for a lay audience from perspective of modern affective neuroscience