Some PrAACtical Thoughts on Positive Reinforcement
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.
- Video lessons on reinforcement from the MIND Institute at the University of California (Davis) here and here.
- Overview of Reinforcement as EBP
- Implementing Positive Reinforcement
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.
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.
Filed under: Strategy of the Month
This post was written by Carole Zangari