5 Ways to Use the Premack Principle You Haven’t Tried

In Applied Behavior Analysis, ABA, the Premack Principle is a commonly used intervention describing a reinforcement relationship. Despite its wide implementation, many practitioners miss some opportunities to benefit from this intervention.

The Premack Principle states that a behavior an individual chooses to do on his own will reinforce a less preferred behavior. Professionals commonly use this intervention to reduce demand refusal, but there are many practical applications beyond this use. Let’s take a look at some new ways to use this established principle of behavior.

1. Reduce the Intensity of a Special Interest

Children with autism engage in high rates of repetitive behavior and frequently have restricted and repetitive interests. For some children, these interests take on an almost obsessive quality where the child will engage in one behavior to the exclusion of most others. Consistently requiring that the child engage in an effortful task prior to gaining access to this special interest, may, over time, reduce the intensity of that special interest.

For example, a child who only wants to play Minecraft on the iPad may have difficulty playing with anything else. Consistently requiring something effortful before granting access to that activity may reduce the overall intensity of the interest for that activity. This is almost the Premack Principle in reverse.

Typically you want to increase the likelihood that a child engages in a less preferred behavior by offering a more preferred activity after (first/then). In this instance, the sequence remains the same; however, the intent is to reduce the intensity of the desire (MO) for the preferred activity.

2. Teach Peer Initiations by Having a Peer Provide Access to the Preferred Activity

Pairing peers with reinforcement develops a preference for interactions with peers. When you combine this with the Premack Principle, the child learns to approach the peer when they complete the first activity. Through repetition this builds the child’s ability to initiate interactions with peers, although you may still need to program for generalization across situations that don’t include the Premack Principle.

Here’s an example:

You are working with Juan, a 5-year-old boy with autism. While he doesn’t communicate vocally, he is able to use LAMP on an iPad to request some of his favorite things. He struggles with playing functionally with playground equipment aside from the swing (his favorite activity). In order to teach functional use of equipment you decide to use the Premack Principle. You present a visual of “first slide, then swing.”

You decide to take this just a step further and also work on initiating an interaction with a peer. To accomplish this, you have Kevin use Juan’s favorite swing while Juan goes down the slide. Once Juan goes down the slide, you praise him and say, “now you can swing!” You guide Juan to the swing and prompt him to approach Kevin with his device and ask for the swing. Because you had prepared Kevin with how to respond, he says, “sure!” and gives Juan the swing. You repeat this process until Juan begins to approach Kevin independently.

In the above example, using the Premack Principle targets 2 key skills. That’s a lot of bang for your buck! With such limited time to work with children or train staff to implement interventions, crafting interventions that provide multiple benefits offers efficient solutions.

3. Improve Time Management Skills with the Premack Principle

Use the Premack Principle to improve your own time management skills as well as those of your clients. In this fast-paced world we experience constant pressure to accomplish more in less time. Utilizing the Premack Principle in regards to necessary tasks, helps you and your client accomplish this while feeling better about it!

Consistently sequencing more preferred tasks after less preferred tasks reduces the resistance to those less preferred tasks, whether those are your own tasks or your clients. Consider this: a car experiences the resistance of the friction between the tires and the road, but if you give it a little gas the friction matters considerably less. When you use the Premack Principle, the less preferred task provides the friction, but the more preferred task provides the gas. The more preferred the task, the more gas you are giving, and the less the friction matters.

Here’s an example:

At work, you frequently put off completing those tasks you don’t want to do, namely documentation. You have been using the time management strategy of getting easy things done and off your list first so you don’t have to worry about them later. What seems to happen is that you end up never accomplishing those tasks you don’t want to do until the very last minute. This leaves you feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

You decide to use the Premack Principle and apply it to your time management. First, you make a list of all the tasks you must accomplish by the end of the day, in order of priority. Then you resequenced them so that a more preferred activity always follows a less preferred activity. Using this technique encourages you to get through those more difficult tasks to access the ones you would rather spend time doing.

This video by Aubrey Daniels describes the impact of consistently completing less preferred tasks before more preferred tasks. He is well known for his work in leadership and management and he knows how to get things done!

Just as you apply this to your own time management, you can assist your clients in developing these habits. One of the best ways to teach this is through the use of schedules. Teach the to create a schedule and sequence the activities so that more preferred activities follow less preferred activities. For more ideas about using schedules, read our post: Using Visual Schedules to Teach On-Task Behavior to Children with Autism.

4. Use the Premack Principle as a Self-Management Strategy

Self-management is often the ultimate goal not only for our clients but ourselves as well. Teach your clients to establish more self-control, better attention, delayed gratification and self-motivation using the Premack Principle. Reinforcing the independent utilization of the Premack Principle to delay gratification or to attend to tasks supports the child’s use of the intervention as a self-management strategy.

Here’s an example:

You have been working with Julie, a 12-year-old with autism, who has some behavioral issues related to avoiding tasks she doesn’t want to do You teach her to use the Premack Principle to motivate herself to get her work done. Each time she uses the principle, you provide direct reinforcement in the form of social praise, but you also use a token economy so she can earn different backup reinforcers such as time on the computer or lunch with the vice principal.

Take a look at this video by Joel Obermayer about self-management to learn more.

5. Expand Potential Reinforcer Arrays

When a highly preferred activity consistently follows a less preferred activity, the child begins to associate the less preferred activity with the more preferred activity. This can lead to the less preferred activity developing the characteristics of a reinforcer.

Wow, that sounded confusing. Let’s look at an example:

A child consistently earns time to watch a video for building a block tower. Over time, building the block tower may take on some reinforcing value in itself. If this association becomes strong enough, the blocks may become reinforcers, expanding the child’s array of potential reinforcers.

The Premack Principle has many possible uses beyond the basics. These creative approaches will expand your practice and maybe even help you develop some skills of your own!