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Reward Error 404: Desired Behavior Not Found

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

By Dr. Jason Travers

Many special educators understand the importance of building in frequent opportunities to receive corrective and reinforcing feedback for all sorts of behavior. Whether reading, solving math problems, playing a game with friends, or learning daily living skills, application of reinforcing consequences is necessary for ensuring meaningful educational progress of students with disabilities. Unfortunately, this importance may translate to overreliance on contrived consequences to increase or maintain student compliance. Performing a skill repeatedly builds fluency and mastery, but exclusive reliance on contrived consequence such as tokens, edibles, or some other reward unrelated to the skill itself may prohibit meaningful generalization and evoke undesirable behavior. Perhaps more concerning is that educators who rely heavily (or exclusively) on consequence strategies will need to regularly identify increasingly potent reinforcers to maintain student motivation. Such compliance-oriented instruction is highly problematic for at least three reasons. First, it compromises student progress by limiting skill performance to very specific (and often unnatural) contingencies. Second, it perpetuates damaging stereotypes about learners with disabilities (i.e., “they don’t generalize” and “he only works is we offer something.”). Third, it overlooks the important role of a supportive approach to teaching in favor of a critical one.

In many cases, particularly for learners with disabilities that require extensive and pervasive supports, educators often will design instruction that focuses on specific skills and uses contrived contingencies (i.e., artificially clear cues, systematic prompting, reinforcing consequences). For example, a teacher may have students say the names and values of coins when asked, “What is this?” or “How much is this worth?” followed by delivery of a token reward, an edible, or preferred activity for correct responses. This process often is justified using a pre-requisite model in which teachers perceive the value of a skill according to its relationship to future skills (e.g., student must know coin names in order to associate coin values; must know coin values in order to add coins; must add coins to count money; must count money to make purchases). The potential problem is that the student may only perform the skill in the contrived circumstances (i.e., with specific cues and only when tokens or edibles are available). A common result is a student who can only perform a set of arbitrary skills in contrived situations. Importantly, students fail to generalize skills when they are taught skills that are irrelevant to them and/or in contrived situations, not because the student has some inherent problem that prohibits generalized learning. Behavior analysis tells us that student failure to learn is a product of ineffective teaching, not the student’s disability. Labeling coins, reciting their values, and adding them presumes the learner values money as a means of acquiring preferred items and activities. Without that value, learners become dependent on contrivances to acquire meaningless skills. This example can be readily applied to most academic and daily living skill being taught in contrived circumstances with artificial consequences.

Amplifying this problem is the almost exclusive reliance on consequence strategies to motivate student learning. Statements like “We tried rewards, but they didn’t work” and “He’s not motivated by anything” illustrate a misunderstanding of rewards while placing the blame for failed learning on the student. Students with disabilities, like all people, are motivated to obtain desirable outcomes (positive reinforcement) and to avoid undesirable outcomes (negative reinforcement). Although most understand and apply the former concept (i.e., rewards for task completion), relatively fewer educators understand how motivation to avoid outcomes competes with motivation to obtain outcomes. For example, a student may be motivated to count coins in order to get extra recess or an edible reward, but also may be motivated to avoid counting coins because she doesn’t value the skill (i.e., it is not functional) or finds it boring, repetitive, lengthy, difficult, or etcetera. Related, the value of the reward diminishes over time in accordance with access and, eventually, motivation to avoid exceeds motivation to get the reward. Behavior that results in avoiding the task (e.g., head down, talking with peers; yelling) becomes more likely than counting coins. When teachers rely exclusively on positive reinforcement, they fail to consider how required tasks align with learner strengths, interests, and preferences as well as the effects of diminished value of rewards. This creates an illusion that students are dependent on contrived and increasingly potent rewards for compliance and, when the value of the available rewards diminishes, behavior to avoid the task will return. Teachers typically conclude that rewards are not effective and that the problem lies within the student (i.e., his motivation) and therefore cannot be addressed by teachers.

Supporting student behavior is different from modifying behavior. Modification typically pertains to deployment of consequence strategies (reinforcing and punishing consequences) and perhaps is more commonly used by general and special educators. Supporting appropriate behavior often refers to organizing the environment (i.e., physical setting, instructional design, materials, methods, curriculum) to make desirable behavior more likely and inappropriate behavior less likely. A longtime core feature of special education is the integration of student interests, strengths, and preferences into the organization and delivery of education. By integrating various student-specific factors into instruction such as length of task, choice of materials, cartoon or movie characters, equipment, technology, materials, visual timers, schedules, and so on, educators make desired student behavior (i.e., academic, social, communication, functional) more likely while simultaneously making undesirable behavior (i.e., behavior motivated by avoidance) less likely. To ensure meaningful progress of students with disabilities, educators must consider ways to organize the environment in order make more likely the desired behavior in conjunction with reinforcing consequences for engaging in those behaviors.

Special and general educators might disagree with the philosophy of a behavior-based approach to teaching, but this technology has been repeatedly proven beneficial for student learning. Importantly, a supportive approach may better align with teacher preferences than exclusive application of consequence strategies, especially because many teachers may believe that reinforcement, reward, and bribery are synonymous terms. Thus, teachers should consider supportive approaches as equally or more important than exclusive reliance on rewards to motivate student compliance. Integrating learner preferences, embedding demands into reinforcing activities, increasing the predictability of the environment, providing opportunities to make choices, using functionally-relevant instruction, and making tasks more engaging are all general examples of ways educators can prevent undesired behavior while promoting appropriate behavior. When these supportive approaches are integrated with systematic use of rewards that reinforce appropriate behavior, teachers of students with disabilities will more effectively promote meaningful progress and feel more satisfied about their teaching.


Jason Travers is an assistant professor in the special education department at Kansas University. Jason earned his doctorate at University of Nevada Las Vegas and is a former public school special educator for learners with autism. He researches the effects of shared active surface technology on academic, communicative, and social-behavioral skills of learners with autism. Additional research interests include trends in racially disparate identification of students in the autism eligibility category, equitable access to early intervention, comprehensive sexuality education for learners with autism, and evidence-based practices in special education.

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