Reinforcement in Therapeutic Preschool Program

What is reinforcement?
Reinforcement is used to increase the frequency of a positive behavior. There are two different types of reinforcement that can be used in a therapeutic preschool program: positive or negative. Positive reinforcement involves adding a reinforcing stimulus (e.g. allowing a child to play with their favorite toy for two minutes), whereas negative reinforcement takes away a present stimulus (e.g. taking away that toy for a period of time). When we refer to “reinforcement” throughout this article, please note that we are referring to positive reinforcement!

What types of positive reinforcements can we give?
They can present in many different forms, depending on the situation, and many of us provide reinforcements to others on a daily basis. For example, a therapeutic preschool teacher will praise kiddos in their class by saying “great job!” or “you did an excellent job waiting patiently for snack.” Other types of reinforcement can be giving a child a high five, a pat on the back, or a thumbs up. These type of reinforcers are called social reinforcements. We can also give rewards to children as reinforcements, if there is a highly desirable object (e.g. their favorite Thomas train toy).

When do we give positive reinforcement?
In a therapeutic preschool program, we want to give reinforcement when we want to create change to a desired behavior. We give the child the reinforcer immediately following the target behavior. Over time, the child’s behavior will increase closer to the target behavior by knowing they will get what they want (e.g. the reinforcer). The reinforcer can motivate the child to stop exhibiting problematic behaviors, if they know they will get an item that they enjoy. This can help facilitate learning and engagement in any activity we do with the child.

How do we use positive reinforcement in a therapeutic preschool program?
It is a strategy that is used in many therapeutic preschool programs, including our therapeutic preschool program, CST Academy. At CST Academy, children constantly receive positive reinforcement, especially when they successfully join circle time and sit still in a chair. These activities can be difficult for some children, particularly those with developmental delays or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so it is extremely helpful to reinforce positive behavior with praise.

When we reinforce great behavior or see others getting reinforced, our kiddos want to do the target behavior so they can receive praise. We also use a “First Then” prompt. For example, we say, “first sit, then ball.” This means that the child must first sit before they can be reinforced with a stimulus, such as playing with a ball. This prompting technique can be generalized to target many behaviors in different settings. For example, we can reinforce a child waiting patiently, walking with a loop, completing a task, or listening to a teacher. We can target behaviors we want to see the children doing, especially if the child may have difficulty with that behavior.