How to Explain that Positive Reinforcement is NOT Bribery

Positive reinforcement is a cornerstone intervention in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), but many people outside ABA including parents, caregivers and teachers believe that it’s nothing more than bribery. Helping others understand the distinction improves buy-in from these influential individuals. With improved understanding comes better intervention leading to superior outcomes for the children you work with.

Positive reinforcement is an effective intervention in ABA, but it exists whether or not we choose to apply it. When positive reinforcement occurs without planning, undesirable behaviors may be reinforced. Help parents and caregivers understand positive reinforcement and how to use it effectively.

What is Positive Reinforcement Anyway?

The term positive reinforcement floats around schools and ABA treatment, but is rarely defined. Positive reinforcement exists under 2 conditions:

  1. A stimulus is added following a behavior
  2. That behavior is more likely to occur in the future

Many parents and caregivers, and even some professionals, miss key components of this definition when discussing positive reinforcement. Giving a child a “reward” for completing a task, responding correctly, or behaving appropriately misses the mark. These rewards only serve as positive reinforcement if the behavior is more likely to occur in the future.

Positive reinforcement is typically considered a consequence intervention. To learn more about consequence interventions, read the post: Understanding Consequence Interventions.

Common Types of Reinforcers

Many times adults determine what reinforcers to offer children. They make assumptions about what should be reinforcing. These assumptions are often false. If the behavior doesn’t occur more often in the future, then what you used wasn’t positive reinforcement.

Here are some common types of reinforcers available to increase behavior:

  • Social reinforcers-social praise, positive touches, other methods of an adult communicating approval for a behavior
  • Tangible reinforcers-access to something the child can touch including toys, edibles or sensory items
  • Activity reinforcers-access to a preferred activity including stereotypies, bubbles, swinging, etc.
  • Token reinforcers-points, coins or some other symbol that can be traded in for a backup reinforcer which can be any of the above reinforcer types
  • Natural reinforcers-are a direct result of engaging in the behavior such as receiving a cookie for saying cookie or feeling warm by putting on a sweatshirt

Remember that reinforcement only occurs if the behavior occurs more often in the future. If this doesn’t occur, consider choosing a different reinforcer. For more information about choosing a reinforcer, read the post: Characteristics of an Effective Reinforcer in ABA on Accessible ABA.

The Distinction Between Positive Reinforcement and Bribery

Positive reinforcement requires forethought and planning. When rewards are introduced during a behavior, the “reinforcer” becomes a bribe. Even if you know you made a mistake and should have presented a reinforcer before attempting to evoke a behavior, you can’t present a reinforcer once challenging behavior emerges. Regardless of your intentions, presenting a reinforcer after challenging behavior occurs is bribery. Bribery builds behavior chains that are difficult to break. Take a look at this example:


Jenny is a 5-year-old diagnosed with autism who attends a public kindergarten. She typically transitions well between different activities, but every once in a while she flops to the floor when told to transition. The behavior appears random in that it occurs for some transitions but not others and it’s not always the same transition. You decide to observe her paraprofessional to determine if you can spot the variables impacting this behavior.

During the observation, Jenny transitions smoothly through the first 4 major transitions of her day. Her paraprofessional praises her behavior and gives her access to some fidget toys when she gets where they are going. When her paraprofessional tells her it’s time to go to the rug for story time, Jenny flops to the floor. Her paraprofessional reaches into her bag and pulls out a special fidget toy that she has been saving for those really tough transitions. She shows it to Jenny and says, “first go to the rug, then fidget.” Jenny stands up and walks to the rug.

Her paraprofessional doesn’t understand why Jenny continues to flop. She makes sure that Jenny earns a fidget toy after every transition. Maybe Jenny isn’t sleeping well at night. Jenny may be using her behavior to tell her paraprofessional that she’s tired of the other fidget toys and needs something new. Help Jenny’s paraprofessional understand the importance of varying the reinforcer and offering a choice of reinforcers before starting the transition.

Parent and Caregiver Training

There are no courses required to become a parent. Most parents use many of the strategies their own parents used.; however, when raising a child with autism, these strategies are insufficient. Parents need guidance to help them understand their child’s unique needs.

Often parents and caregivers of children with autism believe they use positive reinforcement and many feel that it doesn’t work. They may have heard the term and know that they need to provide a reward for good behavior; however, few really understand positive reinforcement. They rely on you to guide them.

Parent and caregiver training should include didactic (classroom style learning) as well as in-vivo (hands-on) learning. Through the training, parents and caregivers should have opportunities to apply what they learn and receive feedback in real time. While the concepts aren’t difficult, they also aren’t intuitive. These aren’t their parents’ parenting techniques and they need time to practice.

Model effective use of interventions. Provide in-vivo examples of when to provide reinforcement and when to withhold it. Guide the parents and caregivers in planning for reinforcement and avoiding the bribery trap.

Using Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Adults often retain information better through storytelling to help make connections between what they know and what they learn. Consider different ways parents and caregivers come into contact with reinforcement themselves.

money tree positive reinforcement
The Money Tree

If they work, their paycheck serves as a reinforcer. There’s a limit to what they would be willing to do if their paycheck didn’t come when it was supposed to. If they suddenly found a money tree growing in their backyard, the paycheck would be much less reinforcing.

Tie this piece of information to positive reinforcement for their child. Their child needs to predict when he will earn reinforcement. Their child can’t have unlimited access to what they want to use as a reinforcer or the value of that reinforcer diminishes.

One of my favorite examples of positive reinforcement is from the Big Bang Theory. I often share this video clip with parents to help them understand reinforcement in a less serious way.

The Temporal Relationship of Positive Reinforcement

Many parents and caregivers tell you that they “give rewards” or “give reinforcement” for positive behaviors, but many struggle with understanding the temporal relationship that exists. In order for positive reinforcement to effectively impact behavior it must immediately follow that behavior (until the child learns to understand delayed reinforcement). This means that the reinforcer needs to be presented within 3 seconds of the behavior.

Parents and caregivers who are desperate for impactful behavior change may try for goals that are too broad or vague. Out of routine, they offer rewards such as:

  • If you’re good at school you can have ice cream when you get home
  • If you don’t scream in the grocery store, we can go to the playground when we are done (meaning after they take the groceries home and put them away and then deal with other things as they come up)

Using delayed reinforcement opens the door to reinforcing behaviors unintentionally. Consider the examples above:

  • What happens if the child does well at school, but has a tantrum when walking in the door when he comes home?
  • What should a parent do if the child starts screaming and demanding the playground while the parent tries to put the groceries away?

Parents are comfortable with these types of rewards because they probably received these rewards themselves as children. Guide parents toward offering smaller reinforcement more frequently for very specific behaviors. Using positive reinforcement in this way achieves results which parents find reinforcing. Help them experience success and they will continue to apply what they learn.

Learn More About Positive Reinforcement

This article by Watling and Schwarts (2004): Understanding and implementing positive reinforcement as an intervention strategy for children with disabilities discusses positive reinforcement. The authors present some helpful tips in understanding this intervention and applying it in a variety of contexts.

Always question what you KNOW to be true. Make sure to understand as many different viewpoints and perspectives as you can. This article by Perone (2003): Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement argues that there may be occasions when positive reinforcement results in deleterious outcomes. Read it and decide for yourself if the author’s arguments are valid.