How to Use Reinforcers in a Special Needs Classroom

What is a Reinforcer?

A reinforcer can include anything that strengthens or increases a behavior, such as tangible rewards.   In a classroom setting, for example, types of reinforcement might include praise, getting out of unwanted work, token rewards, candy, extra playtime, and fun activities.

Parents and caregivers are a good place to start when exploring different reinforcers.   You can also ask for the child's personal preferences using a Reinforcement Assessment.

Every day, people do things in order to gain access to things that they like. An individual goes to work to earn a paycheck. A student studies for a test to make a good grade. Maybe a child eats vegetables in order to have dessert. Most individuals are able to effectively communicate the things that they want and like, as well as what they find reinforcing when completing daily activities. However, students that are on the Autism spectrum often face significant challenges in expressive language, and teachers may find it difficult to determine what to use as reinforcers.

Some students may be perceived as simply “not motivated by anything,” which often is not a true statement. The challenge is finding out what is reinforcing to each student. While this can seem like a daunting task, the use of a tool called a reinforcement assessment can guide a teacher in identifying and using reinforcers in the classroom.

You can read this blog post on how to organize your reinforcers.

What is a Reinforcement Assessment?

A reinforcement assessment, sometimes called a preference assessment, is a strategy that can be used by classroom teachers to determine the items or activities that a student finds reinforcing. The process includes interviews, direct observation, or trials with different reinforcers and then reviewing the data collected. When conducting a reinforcement assessment, a teacher begins by interviewing family members, school staff, and other significant people in the student’s life. Whenever possible, the teacher should also interview the student. If this is not possible, direct observation of the student during daily activities can be used to obtain information on what motivates him or her.

Once interviews and observations have been completed, the teacher gathers and compiles all of the information to identify the student’s three to five highly preferred reinforcers. These are the items or activities that the teacher will use with the student during instruction.

Why does a teacher need to conduct a reinforcement assessment?

Sometimes, teachers have difficulty determining what is motivating for students with ASD, especially those with communication barriers. A reinforcement assessment provides opportunities for the teacher to gather information and determine reinforcers based on what students pick and choose. By using highly preferred items and activities when teaching new skills, the teacher can increase the probability that the student will learn targeted behaviors.


When should a teacher conduct a reinforcement assessment?

There are no specific rules as to when a reinforcement assessment should be given but I can give some pointers.

These may include but are not limited to:

  • the beginning of the school year
  • you get a brand new student
  • a student demonstrates undesirable behaviors
  •  student is not learning/maintaining a skill

In addition, teachers should repeat the reinforcement assessment periodically as students' interests naturally change over time.

How Can I store reinforcers?

For tangible items, I like to use small, clear nail boxes that have different compartments on them.  Or I use a reinforcer choice board that just has pictures for students to choose from.  I have also just placed all of the reinforcers in a clear tote to have on hand when I needed them. 

What are some reinforcer suggestions?

Reinforcement Suggestions

Edibles: Edibles are never the first choice, so you will want to move into secondary reinforcers as quickly as possible. Still, for children with severe disabilities, especially older children with poor functional and social skills, edibles may be the only way to engage them and begin building behavioral momentum.

  • Crackers
  • Pieces of fruit
  • Small individual candies, like Skittles or M & M's
  • fish crackers
  • pretzels
  • pieces of potato chips

Sensory Items: Children with autism spectrum disorders often have issues with sensory integration, and crave sensory input. Items that provide that input, like spinning lights or musical toys, can be powerful reinforcers for young children with disabilities. 

  • Spinning lights or vibrating pens.
  • therapy ball
  • cradle swing
  • giving tickles
  • bear hugs
  • light up gloves
  • light up ball

Tangible items: Many children with disabilities love television and often perseverate on favorite television characters, like Mickey Mouse or Dora the Explorer. Combining these strong preferences with toys may make some items powerful reinforcers. 

  • Sound books with favorite characters
  • action figures
  • Cars & trucks
  • puzzles
  • cards
  • fidgets

Technology: Many children with disabilities, especially students on the Autism spectrum, love the idea of earning time on a tablet or computer.  This is one of the most powerful reinforcer that I have found and should be limited to a small dose at school. 

  • computer time
  • tablet time
  • cell phone use
  • ipod use

I like to use my token boards as a great way to use these reinforcers!


Keep in mind that reinforcers should be easy to use and readily accessible!

Make sure to narrow the list of potential reinforcers to approximately 5 to 7 items or activities.

Real-life example: Josh's teacher decided to do a reinforcement assessment to see if she could identify what motivates Josh. A reinforcement inventory was sent home to his family and after-school providers. They sent the inventories back to school identifying Josh’s preferences as eating food (e.g., chips, pretzels, cheese curls, gummy bears, chewing gum); using the computer; swinging on a swing; looking at books about whales, and listening to country music.

The teacher made a hierarchy of the items that are most reinforcing to Josh and made him a reinforcer choice board.  Now Josh is able to choose what he would like to work for, before starting his math centers. 

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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