To Instruct or To Reward?

In Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a therapist or teacher will do both instruction and reward to make teaching or therapy effective.

Instruction is the antecedent to occasion a learning behaviour. That is, the teacher instructs the learner, “Complete this math worksheet.” The teacher is telling the student what to do.

When the student completes the worksheet as told, she delivers the required behaviour for the teacher. The teachers will reward (or reinforce in ABA terms) the learning behaviour by praise or free time to play.

We all know the above is a perfect scenario. Most often times, teaching and learning will run a little astray from our plan when we work with children with special needs.   In a group inclusion gym activity, a kind-hearted teacher asked me out of curiosity why I was not helping a certain student. To be specific, the question is, “Why am I not giving antecedents or rewards?”

To Do or Not to Do? A few factors are in play here:

Level of Physical Ability and Environmental Awareness: The student runs slower than other kids. It is very difficult for her to play attention to changing game rules and people around. If I instruct the student to play tag and run away from the “IT”, she will usually run around having fun and boosting her cardio.

The Program Goal and Behaviour Target: Be sensitive and avoid from “making” the client “act” like other children. The student has a different goal tailored to his physical and cognitive development. “Pushing” him too far will induce anxiety and undesirable behaviour. The worst outcome is the learner will not do the task beyond his ability. The therapist or teacher will lose his authenticity in the long run.

The Environment as a Natural Reinforcer: Let the child get a taste of natural reward from his or her environment. If the child finishes a race nicely and fast, she will naturally receive hurray from the crowd. Also, when the child sees that she can do things at par just like her peer; this is already a rewarding consequence for herself. Help the child get reinforcers from the natural environment as much as possible.

There are many variables affecting the decision to teach and/or to reward, or not to do these at all. To-Do-Or-Not-To-Do is often not that straightforward compounding quite a few variables involving programming, human factors, social validity, and environmental constraints. Check with a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) if you have questions. You could look up a Certificant in your city at Feel free to share your experience and discussions in my blog

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