Positive Reinforcement vs. Bribery

There’s a lot of confusion between bribery and reinforcement, and it’s really important for both autism professionals and parents to know the difference. So today I’m talking all about this important topic, and how you can ensure you’re using positive reinforcement.

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A few months ago, I also started my Turn Autism Around podcasts, so I hope you’ll check that out too on iTunes or at marybarbera.com/podcast.  A few weeks ago, a certified teacher I know, I’ll call her Susie, said she was going to the store to get some cheap prizes to bribe her fifth grade students for being good during PSSA testing. Now Susie teaches general education and has worked with my son Lucas for years so I know she’s very behavioral. She even created a token system classroom wide and has been recognized for her classroom management skills.

So I explained to Susie that she wasn’t using bribery but she was using reinforcement and she wanted to know the difference. So I explained it to her; I remember somebody came to see a session with my client, Cody and his mom, Jenna, who’s featured in a podcast. They came to observe the session years ago when I was working with Cody and one of the reactions from both the student and the adult was that they could not believe the dense reinforcement. I don’t think they used quite the dense reinforcement term that I did, but they just couldn’t believe how much positive reinforcement was needed to get Cody to participate and that it was truly eye opening.

I think some people that have misconceptions about ABA think it’s just bribery and it’s in some way detrimental, but ABA is the most proven treatment for children with autism starting more than 3 decades ago and continues to be the most solid evidence based treatment. So I do think that it’s important whether you’re a parent using reinforcement or a professional working with students to be able to understand and teach people the difference between bribery and positive reinforcement.

So bribery is not planned out. So I knew Susie going to the store to plan out prizes was definitely planned.  So before I said it’s not bribery, it’s reinforcement you’re talking about, I asked her to explain what she meant by she’s going to the store and what her plan was.  She definitely had a plan. Bribery involves no plan, it is very reactive. So bribes are given or offered following problem behavior. A lot of times this involves negotiation with higher language kids. It might be reinforcing, the whining or reinforcing the crying. If we think about the candy aisle at the grocery store, it’s just a perfect example because if a child starts crying in the candy aisle and saying things like “I want candy” or “You never get me candy” no matter if the parent goes “I gave you candy last time” or “I’ll give you candy, just stop crying” or anything like that, she’s reacting to that crying and whining behavior, thus reinforcing it. If there’s any negotiation at that point, it’s likely to be a huge payoff for the kid.

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Parents use bribery with negotiation and parents are often frustrated. The whole thing is not very much led by the adult. Susie had a plan, she was going to get these prizes. She was going to set the expectation with her students and if they met this expectation, if they were quiet when their tests were done or whatever the expectation was, they would be entered into a raffle or they would each get a prize. She explained it to the students at the time. She had her prizes and she was prepared. It was different than bribery.

So bribery results in changes in the short term like, yes, giving the child candy at that moment will look like it works, but in the end the behavior will worsen because you’re already starting with a child crying and whining and that’s going to spill over. That’s going to spill over to other stores, to bath time, to bed time and to homework time. That’s where bribery really does get you in trouble.

Reinforcement on the other hand is planned ahead like Susie did by going to the store. The reinforcer, if that’s an external reinforcer, like stickers or small prizes, are delivered with praise about the specific expectations that they met. The reinforcer is delivered following good or great behavior and expected behavior.  The adult’s in charge, it’s adult led. The adult will decide if the reinforcer will be given. It’s been proven that positive reinforcement will result in long term positive changes, not just a knee jerk, immediate reaction, but a longer term positive change where you won’t even get the more minor behaviors such as crying and whining.

So in summary, you need to know the difference, in my opinion, between bribery and positive reinforcement. You always want to use positive reinforcement that’s well planned out, adult led, making sure the reinforcer follows good or great behavior and look for the long term changes in the student, not the immediate changes. So, like with the grocery store for instance, I would plan that. I remember me as a child, my mom would actually grab a little thing of animal cookies and I would eat them during the trip and then at the end we would pay for the empty box.

It doesn’t have to involve food though and certainly it doesn’t have to involve junky food. You might have to start with shorter trips. It could be like we’re going to get 3 things, and you can help me pick them up off the shelves then we’re going to get to the checkout and then we’re going to come home or we’re going to go for lunch after. Whenever you’re negotiating during problem behaviors, that’s probably more of a bribery situation. If you’d like to learn more about my system for improving language and decreasing problem behaviors, in and out of the house and school, then you can sign up for a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop. Wherever you’re watching or reading this, I would love a thumbs up or a comment, and share this video/article with others who might benefit. And I’ll see you right here next week.

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