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    The Power of Positive Reinforcement for Teaching Autistic* Children

    Topics: Early Childhood Education, Autism & Emotions, Infant/Toddler (0-3), Elementary (4-12)

    Reinforcement or bribery: Is there a difference?

    Positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the purpose of using positive reinforcement in the classroom or at home is to shape better behavior and to help them learn new skills and maintain these skills over time. 

    When covering this topic of positive reinforcement in my workshops, people often ask me if it’s not the same as bribing someone, and shouldn’t children just learn to do what is asked of them without all of this talk about rewards and working for something preferred? It’s important to remember that we all do things every day in anticipation of the benefits we will receive. We work on the weekends to earn extra pay. We go above and beyond to earn a bonus or an award. Teenagers babysit to earn money for a special activity or item they want to get. A student will finish a worksheet to get points he can use during a break to play a video game, and a child cleans his room because he knows he will get a snack when he’s done his chores.


    The Story of Jace: “It wasn’t even that hard to be good!”

    To illustrate this point, in summer school one year, I assisted a student teacher with a classroom full of first-graders. It was her first year teaching, and one of her and my most challenging experiences, as we had several students with ADHD and other diffabilities that impacted their behavior.  

    moody misbehaving boy with autismOne of these students was 7-year-old Jace, who was labeled as “the kid no one knows what to do with anymore.” He was defiant, non-compliant, disruptive, and didn’t get any work done whatsoever. His name was on the board more often than not, he often missed recess, and was regularly sent to the office or home. He hardly ever smiled.

    During individual work time one day, I sat down next to Jace and asked if he needed any help. He said he did, and I helped him get started with his treemap and sorting a list of words with different endings. When he did two on his own and got them right, I gave him a sticker and commended him for doing great. He glanced at me with a shocked look on his face. I told him he could earn more stickers if he continued working, and might even win the class prize that day. I stood up and left him with a smile and a pat on the back.

    That day, Jace started raising his hand to ask for help instead of shouting out it was too hard, and he worked on and completed his assignments until it was time to clean up. He earned a lot of praise and quite a few stickers in the process, and when we tallied everyone’s sticker charts, he was the winner!

    The look of surprise on his face was priceless! He beamed from ear to ear as he picked his prize from the treasure box. When he went to get his backpack to go home and walked past me, he hugged me and said softly so only I could hear, “This is the first time I got a prize, ever!” I had to fight back tears as I told him how proud of him I was and that I was sure he would do great again the following day. He quietly nodded.

    happy boy with autism raising hand in classWhen I told this story to the summer school principal and the school’s disciplinary officer, they both made a point of encouraging him, too. Jace left for home a different boy that day.

    The next day, Jace performed well again and earned a class prize together with those who ended in second place. When his name was called, he was again genuinely surprised. Instead of sending a note home to inform the parents of bad behavior, the teacher sent a note to tell mom and dad how well he had done. He was so proud of himself, and when I told him I knew he could do well, he replied, “It wasn’t even that hard to be good!”

    Positive reinforcement helped turn this student’s behavior around. I have no doubt Jace will have many more great days in school and that this will be a reference point that will continue to help him do well.


    Two Key Differences Between Reinforcement and Bribery 

    Now, let’s clear the air and take a look at the distinct differences between reinforcement and bribery. The only thing they have in common is that your child or student has a chance to get something he likes, such as an edible, an activity, a toy, or perhaps some individual quality time with you. Otherwise, these two important differences set them apart.


    The first difference is the timing of the reinforcement. Reinforcement is given AFTER the child complies and behaves appropriately or completes the task he is asked to work on. It works on an IF-THEN basis. Jace only got stickers and earned the class prize after he complied with classroom expectations and quietly worked to complete his assignments. If he had yelled out and refused to work, there would have been no stickers and no prize.

    In contrast, a bribe is generally given BEFORE  a child does what he was asked to do. If Jace had promised that he would do all of his work and I’d given him a couple of stickers in good faith that he would be true to his promise, he would most likely not have complied and completed his work.  He’d already been given several stickers and got what he wanted, so why work? 

    Bribes can also happen WHEN a problem behavior is taking place. For example, Jace is shouting out and throwing his work on the floor. If in an attempt to stop his yelling I say, “Here are some stickers, please stop yelling and start doing your work,” I am in effect bribing him to behave better.



    toddler with autism with a stickerReinforcement increases the future likelihood of a behavior or skill. When Jace worked and behaved appropriately and earned stickers toward winning the class prize—something he really wanted—he continued doing well on his work. The next day he also worked and behaved appropriately. The reward and praise helped him feel good about doing this work. This shows that positive reinforcement to shape better behavior and skills is very effective!

    Bribery, on the other hand, doesn’t encourage good behavior or skill to happen again. When the reward is given before your child carries out his assigned task, there is a big chance he won’t do what was asked of him. If Jace receives stickers before completing his work, there’s little incentive for him to continue to behave appropriately and finish his task. It may even encourage him to continue to act out. Why? Because a bribe reinforces the inappropriate behavior; he now associates acting out with receiving stickers.

    In the words of B.F. Skinner, “Properly used, positive reinforcement is extremely powerful.” Just like we work hard in anticipation of the benefits we will receive, children will respond to positive reinforcement in anticipation of their reward, too.—If used properly, that is!


    *A Note from Stages Learning: Whenever possible Stages Learning Materials uses
    the preferences stated by an individual as to whether to use identity-first (“autistic
    person”) or person-first (“person with autism”) language. In a poll of 21,000 people,
    69% preferred identity-first language and 31% preferred person-first language.
    A thought piece by Northeastern University indicated that in the majority of cases
    autistic people themselves prefer to be called autistic people, whereas caregivers and
    professionals prefer the wording “people with autism.” We agree with the Northeastern
    article that the group being talked about should be able to dictate what they are called.
    As we move forward we plan to alternate our usage in our written materials and in our
    speech. We recognize the importance of this issue to so many people and we plan to
    revisit this issue in the coming years with the expectation that preferences will likely
    continue to shift and we will do our best to reflect these changes. We welcome your
    thoughts on this issue. Please feel free to contact us
    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Written by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan is an author, public speaker, and Certified Autism Resource Specialist from the Netherlands. After working abroad as a teacher and humanitarian for 25 years, she moved to the US in 2006 and assumed the care of her then 6-month-old grandson, Logan. There were signs of autism at an early age, and the diagnosis became official in 2009. She has been his advocate and passionate about promoting autism awareness and acceptance ever since. Logan is the inspiration behind the Autism Is...? (tinyurl.com/5aj73ydd) series of children’s books she initially wrote for him and later published. Ymkje currently lives in California with her now 15-year-old grandson, and besides writing, presents autism training workshops for early childhood educators, parents, and caregivers. You can read more about her story in her newly released book, Autism on a Shoestring Budget, [Early] Intervention Made Easier (https://tinyurl.com/ysxhxbmf). For more information, you can visit www.autism-is.com, www.facebook.com/AutismIs, and/or contact her at autismisbooks@gmail.com.