Pairing Social Interactions with the Delivery of Reinforcement

Many students with autism have a strong history of contacting reinforcement without social interaction or through problem behaviors. In such circumstances the children learn to get what they want without approaching another person or they learn to engage in various problem behaviors until someone responds by delivering a reinforcer. For students who have limited ways to ask for what they want, other non-social behaviors may become more prominent, such behaviors are enjoyable in themselves. These behaviors may be referred to as self-stimulatory or repetitive behaviors. For children who present such a pattern, it is important to teach the student to learn that appropriate social interaction is valuable as a means of obtaining desired items and events.

In order to mand, the student must have an audience: people who can respond to their requests. Therefore the student must first learn to “like” being with others. The way we teach children to “like” others is through the process of pairing. Pairing involves the repeated correlation of delivery of reinforcement with the presence of a particular stimulus, in this case, other people.

By the reinforcement occurring only in the presence of another person, the student learns that the person is a source of reinforcement and the person becomes a conditioned reinforcer. To accomplish this conditioning, one must manipulate the environment so that the availability of reinforcers occurs only in the presence of the other person.

At first glance it may seem contradictory to consider that one must limit a child from getting things on their own. It seems as if this process will hinder the development of “independence.” However, for students who fail to develop a basic ability to ask others for what they want and for whom social interactions are not of value, independence is not a priority: they actually engage in too much independent behavior in the form of self-stimulatory or repetitive behaviors.

A challenge that can occur in the process of pairing involves the balance of controlling reinforcers and the opposing goal of making sure that the student can receive lots of easily accessed reinforcement. Adults need to be the only source of reinforcement, but also need to be a source that is easily accessed for delivery of highly valued events. If at first the adult makes it too hard for the student to obtain desired items, the effort of obtaining the item may result in it no longer having value to the student. If we make it too much work, it will no longer be as much fun to be with the adult. As Dr. Jim Partington, one of the authors of the ABLLS, has noted, “we want the students to run to us.”

Pairing needs to be fun, but it does require careful application. Adults must also insure that reinforcement is only delivered in the absence of problem behavior. We do not want to inadvertently reinforce behaviors that we do not want to see increase. This can pose a challenge for situations in which students engage in frequent problem behavior. In other words, it may be hard to find opportunities to pair delivery of a reinforcer because the child emits frequent problem behavior.

There is no specific time frame for conditioning the instructor as a reinforcer; the time necessary to successfully pair can vary from minutes to months.

Considerations in the Pairing Process

  • Freely available reinforcement and lack of interaction
  • Sanitizing and delivery
  • Adults may need to wait patiently for pauses in problem behavior before making reinforcement available.
  • Timing of delivery
  • Better with adult than alone
  • Gradual “enticement”: careful not to swamp the student with stimuli or make something fun scary

There are things we can do to facilitate the pairing process. Here are some suggestions for beginning the pairing process:

Suggestions for Beginning the Pairing Process

  • Limit access to reinforcers
  • Hold item and let child approach teacher (avoid delivering items when child is moving away from you.)
  • When possible make activities more fun to do with an another person than alone
  • Gradually entice students to accept reinforcers, be careful not to move to fast with certain reinforcers.
  • Contrariwise, do not hesitate to present novelty and surprise as reinforcers.
  • Be sure to deliver items that the child wants when they want it (be sure there is an MO in effect.)
  • Deliver items that you can later teach the child to request
  • Monitor the strength and frequency of the child’s approach behavior: data can be kept with clicker counter and graphed (i.e., daily rate of approach behavior)

As you begin the pairing process, be sure to limit free access to reinforcers. Some call this sanitizing the environment.

Entice the interaction by holding up the item and letting the child approach you. Be sure to avoid delivering items when child is moving away from you.

When possible make activities more fun to do with another person than alone. This can mean that you will want to deliver the reinforcer with enthusiasm. Add components of interaction such as tone of voice, facial expression, touch, maybe even goofiness, that the child would otherwise not access if they got the item on their own. Of course, be careful not to overdo this. You don’t want to be so enthusiastic that you take away the enjoyment of the activity itself.

Gradually entice students to accept reinforcers, be careful not to move too fast with certain reinforcers. Sometimes it may be helpful to deliver a preferred item to a child nearby or to otherwise show that no demand will accompany the delivery of the reinforcer.

However, do not hesitate to present novelty and surprise as reinforcers.

Be sure to deliver items that the child wants when they want it. In other words, attend to the current motivative operation.

When selecting the reinforcers to deliver, consider that you will want to use things that can initially be freely delivered but later can be used as targets for mand training. For instance consider the ease of which the word for the item can be signed or pronounced.

Remember that not all things the child prefers can be used as reinforcement because they may not be able to be controlled by the teacher. It is best to select reinforcers that can be delivered in small quantities (to avoid satiation or habituation); that can be presented repeatedly (allowing for more frequent reinforcement); that are dependent for delivery upon another person (can be controlled by a teacher); and do not require the teacher to remove the reinforcement. The ideal reinforcers are those that are easily controlled, have natural termination, can be delivered multiple times and in small amounts, and are better with you than without you (serve to establish the teacher as a conditioned reinforcer.)

As with all aspects of well designed programming, data is important. To insure success of pairing, you will need to accurately monitor the strength and frequency of the child’s approach behavior. You can keep data with a clicker counter and graph the daily rate of approach behavior versus escape behavior or you can use a data sheet to record frequency of approach to particular items targeted for pairing.

Pair delivery of reinforcement when motivation is strong

The timing and quality of reinforcer delivery can significantly influence the value of receiving reinforcement from other people. It is important to deliver reinforcers when the child’s motivation is at its strongest. Likewise, we should deliver reinforcers in ways that will maintain their value. There are certain aspects of reinforcer delivery that will maintain the value of those events selected to be paired. Here is a list of some techniques that can help maintain the value of reinforcers and avoid habituation:

  • Vary the number of reinforcers used within any one session.
  • Vary the way the reinforcers are delivered including what you say during delivery.
  • Vary the schedule of delivery. Do not allow the timing of delivery to be completely predictable.
  • Stop delivery of reinforcement before it loses its value.
  • Vary the type of reinforcer used, for instance do not always use food or always use activities; mix them up!
  • Avoid using too much of a reinforcer at any one delivery, less can sometimes lead to wanting it more.

Pair delivery of reinforcement with mand form

During the pairing process instructors should say the name of the reinforcer as it is being delivered. This process will correlate the instructor’s voice, and the “name” of the item or event with delivery of the reinforcer. A side benefit of establishing this relationship may be to have the sound of the word itself take on reinforcing qualities. This process has been identified in the behavioral literature as the automatic reinforcement of vocal responding. Establishing the sound of words as having value in and of themselves may make it easier to have the student produce the word when they need it for making a request.

With that in mind, the child’s name should also occasionally be used as reinforcement is delivered (so that hearing his or her name becomes correlated with good things) as opposed to saying the student’s name as part of difficult task instructions.