© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, RDI CC, Floortime C2
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Positive Reinforcers and Positive Reinforcement

The most common suggestion for motivation problems is to use a process called  “positive reinforcement.”   The word “positive” in “positive reinforcement” doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good…

In this manner of speaking, “positive” really means that whatever it is, it is now added to the environment or to the consequences of behavior.  Whatever is added should have the effect of making a desired behavior more likely to happen.  A “positive reinforcer” is simply something you add that will make some behavior more likely to happen.

“Positive Reinforcers” are those things that we add to “the environment,” to provide motivation that a person cannot yet attain from internal sources or from events occurring naturally in the environment.

There is nothing wrong with using positive reinforcement as a temporary compensation for a lack of motivation, but it is never a good idea to use it in place of natural forms of reinforcement – those that can be found in the environments where the skills are needed.

We therefore exercise caution in using positive reinforcement because we are aware that:

  • The misuse of positive reinforcement techniques can lead to dependence on external and unnatural forms of reinforcement and ultimately – burnout.
  • The primary use of positive reinforcement puts the focus on “getting the right answer” and earning rewards, rather than finding the reward in discovering an answer
  • When success with positive reinforcement deprives a person of opportunities to become resilient – in other words, opportunities to try and to learn from making mistakes