3 Easy Ways to Find Reinforcers that will Motivate Our Children
Carina, a single mother, is struggling to get her two kids motivated to get up and ready for school. It’s a Monday, and they always struggle on Mondays. She told them Sunday night that they need to go to bed early and be up by six to get ready for school. It’s now seven, and they will be late if they don’t leave in 15 minutes! She has opened the blinds, taken their blankets and pillows, told them that they could have ice cream for breakfast, etc. They just won’t get up!
This likely sounds familiar for a lot of us. Finding things that motivate our children to independently go about daily life can be a struggle. There are also instances where we can forget the things that were fun. When was the last time you were “bored” and had a moment to explore a new thing? And how often do you think, “Why do they like that?” It’s hard for us to remember that simply poking something with a stick was a fun thing to do as a child. Perhaps some of us have the thought, “I don’t know what my child likes” as well, especially for those of us who have special needs children.
The good news is there are ways to figure out what our children might like, and what can motivate them. In this article, we will discuss three easy ways to find motivators, things to avoid, and some helpful tips and tricks.
One of the easiest ways to find out about your child’s wants and needs is to ask! There are a variety of ways to do this based on the context. Perhaps, you are needing them to get up in the morning, and you ask them the night before what they would like to have for breakfast. Or, you need them to get a chore done and ask them what music they want to listen to while doing the chore. We ask our children what they want for their birthdays. It’s a great thing to teach our children to communicate directly about their wants and needs.
Have you ever just watched your child interact with the things around them? What do they immediately go for? Is it what you expected? Is it something you can take note of and give them at a later time when they are doing well with school work, chores, family, etc.? Studies suggest that we are likely to prefer the things we freely interact the most with. Sometimes our children cannot tell us what they want or need. If that is the case, watching them might be the next best thing. Let’s go back to Carina. That day after work, Carina watched her two girls play with a dollhouse that their grandfather got them a few weeks ago. She usually doesn’t let them play with anything before school, but she can try using this as a motivator. Tuesday morning, she will tell them that they can play for 10 minutes after their morning routine.
If asking and observing are not options for us, we can try to set up a situation where our children are in a more “controlled” setting. This can help us assess what our child may be more inclined to want or what they might be motivated by. There are a couple of general ways we can do this, but before we can start, we need to get set up for success! The first thing we want to do is to make sure that we have multiple options in easy reach for us (not for them!). We also need to try to keep any distractions away and out of sight (e.g., that new dollhouse). Now we can begin.
Preference assessments are an easy way for us to test what might be motivating for our kids. One of the quickest ways to do this is to provide two options at the same time. Generally, this is used with objects, but if our children are able to choose easily we can also provide two activities to choose from. We can simply present two options next to each other, and either ask the child to pick one or wait for them to naturally choose an item. Take a note of which ones your child chooses more often, and you can try to use this as a reinforcer for them!
Reinforcer assessments can be a next step for us to not just guess but be sure that what we are using as reinforcers are actually motivating for our children. What exactly are reinforcer assessments? Well, when we have figured out which things our children choose more often, we provide those things when our children are doing well. If our children continue to do well or are showing improvement, then we know what is being provided is an effective reinforcer (e.g., toys, activities). So, if Carina sees that her girls get up more easily when they are allowed to have some playtime before school, she can guess that the playtime is a reinforcer and will motivate her kids.
- Remember that variety is the spice of life. Something we like one day; we might not want the next day. We need to make sure that we use a variety of potential reinforcers, not just the same thing all the time. For example, would you get sick of eating the same thing every day?
- Maybe our kids like other things that are not so tangible or physical. Perhaps they seem to like our attention, or maybe they get overwhelmed easily. We can give attention or breaks as reinforcers or motivators as well. For instance, Carina’s 6-year-old, Sam, loves “Mommy and Me” time. When Sam is able to do some independent activities while Carina does the laundry, Carina always gives her special one-on-one time after.
- If it seems like your child doesn’t like anything, you can get support from a provider (e.g., teacher, SLP, ABA) to gain ideas for how you can find these things easier. A behavioral health provider can also support your child in expanding what might be reinforcing or motivating for them!
- It’s always best to understand the difference between reinforcement and bribery. Bribery happens when our children are already misbehaving. We reinforce behaviors by providing the desired item, activity, or attention when they are doing well.
- Lastly, it’s important for us to always remember that we are teaching our children how to navigate the world. What values do we want to teach them? How can we teach them to become independent?
In our next article, we will be discussing values and how they influence us and our children.
About Author Holly Downs
Holly is the Director of Ethical Compliance at [PBS Corp] (https://www.teampbs.com/). and an instructor at Capella University. She is a certified behavior analyst with over a decade of experience in various populations*