Premack Principle – A tool to help your kids to start or finish an activity

Premack Principle is a useful tool that can be used by teachers, parents, or anyone teaching a skill when you are having difficulty creating the positive behavior momentum to motivate the child/adolescent. Premack Principle involves sequencing a preferred activity after a less or non-preferred activity to reinforce the effort that the child puts in completing the first or more difficult activity. If things that are more desirable are made contingent upon completing or doing things that are less desirable, then the less desirable behaviors or task are more likely to occur. The concept behind Premack Principle is that if you present your child with a less preferred activity, or low probability behavior, he or she will be more likely to complete the less preferred activity if it is followed by a highly preferred activity or high probability behavior. It refers to “First__then__”. Simply put, “first” if you do this (non-preferred or challenging task), “then” you get that (motivating/preferred activity or reward). The Premack Principle can be implemented when you want to motivate a child to participate in an activity he or she does not want to do. For example, “First brush your teeth, then you can play your favorite video”. “First finish your homework, then we can go outside”. Brushing teeth and doing homework might be the less preferred activities but by using the Premack principle, your child is more likely to complete these less preferred activities if he or she knows they’re going to get something good afterwards. Teach the contingency that first we have to do this, then we can get the reward. The individual is presented with choices of highly preferred activities to engage in, as reinforcement for complying and completing work demand. It is very important that the adult deliver the preferred activity immediately after the child finishes the less preferred activity.


Tips when using Premack Principle:

  • Use Visuals: Put instructions into visual format by using a chart or board that says “first” and “then”. You can also create pictures to go along with it. For example, you can have a picture of somebody brushing their teeth and then a picture of your iPad, and place it “first” brush teeth, “then” iPad, A “First, Then” schedule can provide the visual representation of what they have to do.
  • The “then” part has to be reinforcing: If your child isn’t motivated by the “then” part or second activity, he’s not going to complete the “first” activity (demand). Be sure the “then” activity is reinforcing and meaningful for your child.
  • Be Consistent: The “then” (reward) is only available if you child completed the “first” demand. You have to really commit to following through not only on providing the reward after the “first” demand is completed, but also on not providing the reward if the “first” demand doesn’t happen.
  • Use Positive Language: Saying “first brush your teeth, then we can watch TV” instead of saying “if you don’t brush your teeth, then you can’t watch TV”. Focus on giving something positive by doing what’s expected instead of taking something away or using negative language if they don’t.
  • Start with Easy Things: Starting with simple things like “sit down first, then____” or “first take one bite of your vegetables, then___”. These things we are start to build with compliance, and begin to teach them to understand the “first___then__” relationship.

— Yujue Yang, BCBA

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