Conducting a Preference Assessment

Preference interview and checklist

In order to begin determining what may serve as reinforcement for a student, it will be wise to seek out the opinion of people who are familiar with the child’s behavior and interests. Remember that when we first conduct a preference assessment we do not know if preferred items will serve as reinforcers. We can only identify reinforcers when we see how presentation of the item or event alters the frequency of the behavior it follows. Our hope is that what we identify as preferences will indeed later serve as reinforcers that can be used to teach mand behavior.

A preference assessment can be accomplished by asking in an interview what items are preferred by the individual or by having a person familiar with the individual complete a written preference inventory.

Common preference inventories usually assess a range of possible items and activities a student enjoys across a variety of categories. The inventory can be administered through an interview or having them fill out the checklist.

Categories Commonly Included on Preference Assessments

  • Consumable items such as food and drinks
  • Tangible items such as various toys and materials
  • Activities that involve movement
  • Games
  • Electronic media such as TV, computer
  • Various forms of social interaction
  • Music
  • Preferred dramatic themes and characters

Remember that no matter how thorough of a preference assessment is completed, there may be certain events that can serve as reinforcers that are not represented on the inventory. In many circumstances it will be prudent to explore the effectiveness of events not included on the inventory as reinforcers.

Chart 5

Preference Inventories and Interviews
1. Interviewee has wide range of experiences with individual1. Need to rely on having an interviewee available
2. Can sample a broad range of possible reinforcers2. Verbal reports are prone to error; what people say can be biased by many factors
3. Easy to use3. Historical reports of preferences may not predict what is currently valuable to the student
4. Allows for quick interpretation4. Preferences reports will need to be verified through behavioral observation
5. Can sample preferences for items and events that may not be available at the time for direct assessment 


A second way of determining what items and events will serve as reinforcement is through direct observation.

You can structure an observation of a child’s preference by recording how often the child approaches various items, how quickly he approaches the item once it is seen, and how long he remains engaged with the item. During such observations one should note how the item was presented to the student and any situational variables that might have influenced the child’s response to the item such variables related to motivation (i.e., deprivation, presentation of other stimuli that made the item more valuable, etc.)

Chart 6

Preference Observations
1. Allows observation of naturally occurring stimuli1. May not provide an opportunity to determine preference for a range of items
2. Can provide information on the student's preferences for items already available in the environment2. Novel items that may serve as reinforcement need to be planned.
3. The environment can be planned to include the presence of a variety of familiar and novel stimuli3. Student engagement with one or few items may prevent an assessment of preference for stimuli that are less valuable only in comparison to highly preferred items.
4. May be easy to accomplish4. To obtain a more thorough assessment of preferences, lengthy observations across a wide range of settings may be necessary
5. Allows for quick interpretation 
6. Allows for assessment of activities as well as tangible items 

Formal Stimulus Preference Assessments

There will be cases when we cannot determine from an interview or observation which items may serve as reinforcers. In such circumstances we will need to further structure the stimulus preference assessment by using procedures to systematically present stimuli and carefully note the student’s response.

There are several basic ways to accomplish a stimulus preference assessment. These techniques share a common method in that they rely on determining if a child will approach or use an object when it is presented. They include:

  • presenting one object to the student at a time
  • presenting two objects to the student at a time (forced choice format)
  • and presenting multiple objects to the student at a time

These different formats provide different kinds of information about the student's preferences.

  • The single item presentation allows us to tell whether that item by itself without comparison to other items is valuable.
  • The forced choice format allows us to make multiple comparisons of which items are preferred in relation to others and to eventually identify a hierarchy of preferences.
  • The multiple object format allows us to determine which of many items available at one time will be valuable

Note that several data sheets with instructions for completing the various types of preference assessments are included in the appendices of this manual.

Chart 7

Preference Assessments
1. Can assess response to a wide range of stimuli1. Requires organization of materials
2. Various formats of assessment allow for determining value of individual items, relative value of items in comparison to other items, and a hierarchy of preference2. Planning requires consideration of motivative variables; unless completed repeatedly, results may reflect fleeting preference for items
3. Can be done relatively quickly3. Criteria will need to be established to judge strength of response
4. This process is best for use with food and other tangible items (toys)4. May not effectively assess preference for activities
5. Very brief, informal assessment of preference can be used throughout instruction as a check of strength of motivative operation.5. Some preference assessment models require that the student have a strong selection response established.
6. Is a direct assessment in relation to specific stimuli; not dependent upon verbal report