Some PrAACtical Thoughts on Positive Reinforcement

February 3, 2014 by - 4 Comments

Some PrAACtical Thoughts on Positive Reinforcement
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SLPs know that positive reinforcement is a key therapy tool with an evidence base for many types of AAC learners. This month, we’ll focus on making positive reinforcement work in our AAC therapy sessions.

Reinforcement is a topic that has gotten a ton of attention in other blogs and websites, particularly those focused on autism, so there is no need to reinvent that wheel. Instead, you can do a web search and/or look at these posts/pages and we’ll focus more specifically on its application to AAC. Here are some places to check out if you want more information on basic concepts in reinforcement. Most approach it from a behavioral perspective.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on positive reinforcement within the context of AAC therapies and interactions.

Why ‘Good Talking’ Isn’t Good Reinforcement

A few months ago, we asked some practicing SLPs to give us examples of the kinds of positive reinforcement they used. Many talked about providing an item that the learner requested, but the most frequent answer was something that gave us pause. Almost everyone mentioned some variation of “good talking” as one of the things the generally do to provide positive reinforcement. We’re not big fans of that approach. Here’s why. While ‘good talking’ is indeed a positive comment, it doesn’t usually meet criteria as a positive reinforcer for most AAC learners. In most situations that we’ve observed, it doesn’t serve to increase the occurrence or quality of the target skill.

Things that seem reinforcing, like verbal praise for talking, don’t always function to increase behavior. Here’s an example. Let’s say that you wrote a wonderful guest post for this site, full of prAACtical information, tips, and forms to download. On the day it is published, you get two comments: “Good typing!” and “Good information!” Which was more meaningful? Maybe neither one inspires you to write a second guest post, but think about it. Was it more rewarding to have someone appreciate your operational skills or the content itself? A positive comment is only reinforcing if it actually serves to increase the target behavior. It may feel good to say ‘good talking,’ but in many situations, it’s not an effective way to improve communication.

Of course, many learners DO appreciate and respond positively to verbal praise. We’re definitely NOT anti-praise; We use verbal encouragement in each and every session. Still, ‘good talking,’ isn’t in our Top 10 Ways to Encourage, or our Top 20, or our Top 50. Ditto for ‘Good typing/showing/pointing/giving/looking.’ Instead, we try to either focus on the specific intent or message, or the (tremendous) effort it took for the AAC learner to communicate. Here are 101 alternatives.

Some PrAACtical Thoughts on Positive Reinforcemen

Motivating AAC Learners

The two best ways that we know of to motivate AAC learners are a) to treat them as competent individuals (although they may need a lot of support), and b) to engage them in interesting activities and conversations. Without those practices, there is no sense talking about positive reinforcement. Did you ever learn valuable skills from someone who didn’t believe in you, treated you as incompetent, or bored you to tears? Neither did we. If you’re not yet able to treat these learners as competent and/or engage them in interesting activities/topics, that’s a good starting place. You can say and do all the right things reinforcement-wise, but if you don’t believe in the individual and treat them the way YOU would want to be treated if the roles were reversed, then it’s time to take a break. Catch your breath. Reflect a bit. Take some time to address those two things first. In our eyes, those are pre-requisites to effective AAC intervention.   

Beyond that, we can do things like interviewing significant others, careful observation and reinforcer preference testing to figure out what an AAC learner finds motivating. It may take us awhile to figure but exactly what motivates a particular learner, but once we do, we can use that to accelerate learning.

How do you use positive reinforcement in your prAACtical work? We’d love to hear about it.


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This post was written by Carole Zangari


  • Geri Koblis says:

    Particularly for the students on my caseload who yet use gestures, vocalizations and body movements to communicate-I respond to them and let them know I am listening to them and whatever way they say it they will get a response from me. I often say-“I hear you! Tell me more” And they usually do!

  • ischemgeek says:

    I had a severe stutter as a kid and McGuyvered my own ad-hoc AAC before I even knew what AAC was. First, I used pen and paper (which didn’t work too well because I also have dysgraphia) and later a tablet or smartphone. I still carry around a computer or tablet at all times in case I have a time where words are hard (if I’m both upset and tired, this is likely).

    I’m really glad that you pointed out that you have to do stuff that is interesting. I cannot do cursive to this day, despite hours and hours of training during which I was often restrained and forced into finishing long after I was in full meltdown. Because it was boring and unpleasant and I don’t know anyone who can learn anything when they’re in a painful restraint hold, frustrated, in pain, angry, and scared.

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share a bit about your story. I like to think that we’ve learned a lot about how to do things differently than what you experienced, but it is probably true that those practices are still taking place. It seems like common sense that real learning doesn’t happen when people are forced into situations that make them feel powerless. Some people are slow to come around, I guess, but we can’t risk putting more kids through things like this. When people like you share their experiences, it really does help others see that a different approach is needed. Thank you again for your comment.

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