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Reinforcer Preference Assessment: A useful tool for the School Psychologist. Samuel Thompson, M.Ed., LSSP Texas Tech University School Psychology Specialization SELCO SSA Brook Roberts, M.A., LSSP SELCO SSA. INTRODUCTION.

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Reinforcer preference assessment a useful tool for the school psychologist

Reinforcer Preference Assessment:A useful tool for the School Psychologist

Samuel Thompson, M.Ed., LSSP

Texas Tech University School Psychology Specialization


Brook Roberts, M.A., LSSP



  • Reinforcer: Any stimuli that, when presented, increases the future frequency of the behavior that immediately precedes it.

  • In schools, positive reinforcement is considered the cornerstone of effective behavior change and management.

  • Positive reinforcement is impossible if the stimulus selected to serve as a reinforcer is not actually reinforcing to the student.


  • School Psychologists are frequent behavioral consultants

    • Last line of defense

  • When bringing in outside consultants, time is money

  • Special Education directors will be happy with any steps the School Psychologist can take in order to save time with the consultant

    • The first step is typically a reinforcer preference assessment


  • What students are we talking about?

    • Those requiring substantial behavioral support

    • Any student exhibiting aggression or property destruction

    • Students with frequent BIP modifications or related manifestation determination reviews

    • Students who seem to demonstrate no clear preference


  • Verbal Nomination

    • RAISD

    • “I know he likes this…”

  • Free Operant Preference Assessment

    • Tangibles and activities

  • Multiple Stimulus without Replacement

    • Edibles and (maybe) tangibles

Verbal nomination

  • History

    • One of the earliest forms of preference assessment was to simply ask the student

  • Application

    • Can be used with caregivers, teachers, or child

    • When time is limited

    • To have a starting point and to also begin to eliminate items which may not be reinforcing

Verbal nomination1

  • Strengths/Weaknesses

    • Self-report may not accurately identify reinforcers in some cases when directly observed

      • (Northup et al., 1996)

    • Caregiver report is frequently ineffective at reliably identifying reinforcers

      • (Windsor , Piche, & Locke, 1994)

    • Teacher and caregiver report, when incorporated with other direct assessment procedures, may more effectively identify reinforcers than either of the two in isolation

      • (Cote et al., 2007)

Verbal nomination2

  • Strengths and Weaknesses (cont)

    • A reinforcer chosen by the individual receiving it rather than by someone else may be more effective

      • (Fisher et al.,1996; Lerman et al., 1997; Thompson, Fisher, & Contrucci, 1998)

    • Self-nomination of preference may not match observed preferences

    • Self-nomination is limited to individuals who possess sufficient expressive and receptive language skills

    • Considerations

      Students’ level of functioning

      Verbal abilities

      Cognitive abilities

      Use pictures when needed

Verbal nomination3

  • Reinforcer Assessment for Individuals with Severe Disabilities

  • - (RAISD; Fisher et al., 1996)

    • Generates a list of potential reinforcers from the visual, audible, olfactory, edible, social, and tactile domains

    • Rank orders the stimuli from most to least preferred based on predictions of child preference

    • When information yielded from these methods does not appear to change behavior, other methods of reinforcer assessment may be required.

Verbal nomination4

  • Other Verbal Nomination Instruments

    • School Reinforcement Survey Schedule

      • (Holmes, Cautela, Simpson, Motes, & Gold, 1998)

    • Forced Choice Reinforcement Survey

      • (Cartwright & Cartwright, 1970)

      • Presentation of limited choices will prevent unrealistic selections (such as iPhones and trips to Cancun)

Free operant preference assessment

  • History

    • Developed a procedure in which participants had continuous access to an array of stimuli for 5 minutes.

      • (Roane et al.,1998)

    • Participants were free to interact with the stimulus(i) of their choosing at any time throughout the assessment, and no stimuli were withdrawn from the participants

Free operant preference assessment1

  • Application

    • Provide non-contingent access to an array of stimuli that may or may not function as reinforcers

    • Operationally define “interaction”

    • Record total duration of interaction with each object or percentage of intervals child interacted with object

    • Method to assess tangible and activity reinforcers

    • “Today, you get to play with these toys. When I say “go”, play with the toys you would like to play with.”

Free operant preference assessment2

  • Strengths/Weaknesses

    • Length of assessment is shorter than other methods

    • Displayed fewer problem behaviors during assessment

    • May not get a hierarchy/ranking of preferred items

  • Data Collection: % of intervals

Free operant assessment data sheet
Free Operant Assessment Data Sheet

Results from journal article by Sautter, LeBlanc, & Gillett, 2008:


  • Multiple Stimulus Without Replacement

  • -(DeLeon & Iwata,1996)

  • Typically referred to as an MSWO

  • Uses verbal nomination results

  • Developed in contrast to a forced choice preference assessment or a multiple stimulus with replacement

    -Creates a hierarchy, discrete rankings

  • Hierarchy useful for more complicated interventions that utilize delayed reinforcement schedules


  • Application

    • Student seemingly “bounces around” from one reinforcer to another

    • Unpredictable preference

    • Any time edibles are approved for programming

    • 3-5 trials are needed


  • Steps in application:

  • 1. Obtain reinforcers

  • 2. Create standardized quantities

  • 3. Randomize data sheet

  • 4. Allow for tact/exposure

  • 5. “Okay, pick one…”


  • Data sheet procedures:

    • Randomize each stimuli

    • One presenter/administrator, one data collector

  • Pitfalls:

    • Student grabs for more than one – Block and reset the trial

    • Saving the best for last


  • General recommendations:

    • Ensure standardization

    • Be prepared for problem behavior

  • Threats to validity

    • Mixing Edibles and Tangibles/Activities

      • (DeLeon et al., 1997)

  • Data collection/presentation

    • Visually inspect your data

    • Stop when data is stable


  • Cartwright, C. A., & Cartwright, G. P. (1970). Determining the motivational systems of individual children. Teaching Exceptional Children, 2(3), 143-149.

  • Cautela, J., Cautela, J., & Esonis, S. (1983). Forms for behavior analysis with children. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

  • Cote, C.A., Thompson, R.H., Hanley, G.P., & McKerchar, P.M. (2007). Teacher report and direct assessment of preferences for identifying reinforcers for young children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 157-166.

  • DeLeon, I.G., & Iwata, B.A. (1996). Evaluation of a multiple-stimulus presentation format for assessing reinforcer preferences. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29, 519-532.

  • DeLeon, I.G., Iwata, B.A., Goh, H.L., & Worsdell, A.S. (1997). Emergence of reinforcer preference as a function of schedule requirements and stimulus similarity. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 439-449

  • Fisher, W.W., Piazza, C.C., Bowman, L.G., & Amari, A. (1996). Integrating caregiver report with a systematic choice assessment. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 101, 15-25.

  • Fisher, W., Thompson, R., Piazza, C., Crosland, K., & Gotjen, D. (1997). On the relative reinforcing effects of choice and differential consequences. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 423-438.

  • Lerman, D., Iwata, B., Rainville, B., Adelinis, J., Crosland, K., & Kogan, J. (1997). Effects of reinforcement choice on task responding in individuals with developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 411-422.

  • Northup, J., George, T., Jones, K., Broussard, C., & Vollmer, T.R. (1996). A comparison of reinforcer assessment methods: The utility of verbal and pictorial choice procedures. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29, 201-212.

  • Roane, H.S., Vollmer, T.R., Ringdahl, J.E., & Marcus, B.A. (1998). Evaluation of a brief stimulus preference assessment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 605-620.

  • Sautter, R. A., LeBlanc, L. A., & Gillett, J. N. (2008). Using free operant preference assessments to select toys for free play between children with autism and siblings. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2(1), 17-27.

  • Thompson, R., Fisher, W., & Contrucci, S. (1998). Evaluating the reinforcing effects of choice in comparison to reinforcement rate. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 19, 181-187.

  • Windsor, J., Piche, L.M., & Locke, P.A. (1994). Preference testing: A comparison of two presentation methods. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 15, 439-455.