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Using Reinforcement Effectively to help keep children motivated during virtual learning

A new school year has begun and with it comes a slew of changes that are many of us are still trying to adapt to the changes we know and the possible ones that may be coming. This shift to virtual learning can put both a physical and mental strain on children so keeping them motivated can be a challenge. However, using reinforcement effectively can make a huge difference in motivation and avoid turning school time into something they really dislike. The term reinforcement refers to something that happens after a behavior so that that behavior will happen more often. Reinforcement can be providing something the child enjoys like toys, food, time with a preferred person, or verbal praise immediately following the desired behavior. Reinforcement can also be the removal of a task or activity they do not like. For example, if someone hates washing dishes or working on math problems, the removal of that task would be reinforcing to them. When the child knows they are working towards something they want or that when s/he engages in a specific behavior and the behavior is immediately followed by something “good” from the child’s point of view, the child’s motivation will increase. Below I have provided some helpful tips to implement effective reinforcement strategies for virtual learning.



It is very important that you use something that you know your child enjoys. There could be a long list of things they like, but make sure you use one that is “worth the effort” your child needs to put forth so that s/he is willing to work for the reinforcer. If the chosen reinforcer is something they like, but they are okay if they do not get it, it may not be motivating enough. Take the time to narrow down a few options they really like and don’t be afraid try out new things as well.


Figure out your reinforcement schedule!

Now that you know what you want to use to reward good behavior, you need to figure out when you will reward them. If your child has trouble sitting or focusing for longer periods of time, be sure to deliver the reinforcer more often for when they are sitting and engaged in learning because the “sitting” behavior is the one you want to increase. For example, if your child is able to sit for about 5 minutes (on average), reinforce the sitting behavior every 3 minutes because that time limit is reached every time and then build from there (e.g., after you have delivered the reinforcer for 4-5 consecutively, then you could increase the time window in small increments (e.g., 15 or 30 seconds to build toward a longer sitting period). This could include letting your child play with a toy for a few minutes or watching a show they like for a few minutes immediately after the “sitting” goal has been reached. Once they are able to sit for longer, you can spread the reinforcement out across longer time periods.


Make sure you are reinforcing the desired behavior!

Reinforcement should follow the behavior you want to increase so make sure you observe what occurs right before you reinforce. If you want to reinforce completing a math problem, you would provide the reinforcement immediately after completing the math problem. However, if something occurs after the completion of the math problem like throwing an object, then the behavior that took place right before the delivery of the reinforcer (e.g., throwing) may be accidently reinforced. It is important to be mindful of the behavior that is taking place just before the delivery of a reinforcer and the more immediate the delivery of the reinforcer after the behavior, the more effective it is. Also, it helps to let the child know what behavior s/he did to earn the reinforcer. So when you are delivering the reinforcer be sure to include specific verbal praise which tells your child what the behavior was to ensure you are both on the same page (e.g., “great job cleaning up your work space”).


Vary your reinforcer!

It is important to vary or change up the reinforcer used so that you child does not get too much exposure to just one reinforcer. Having too much of one reinforcer can weaken its effect, so it helps to switch up the reinforcers. Also, having a hierarchy of reinforcers can be helpful for some children to seek out the best possible response. For example, if the child was able to sit for 30 minutes without any redirection and they usually sit for only 10 minutes, you can use the most preferred/“powerful” reinforcer for that response. If they still engage in the correct behavior you should still reward them, but you can save the biggest rewards for when they do very well (e.g., more of a desired behavior or engaging in a new desired behavior). Also, reinforcement does not always have to be giving your child something. Mental breaks away for the screen or time with another person in a 1:1 setting can be a reinforcer as well. Time away from away from academic tasks or chores can be a way to reinforce desired behavior.

There are many different ways to use reinforcement to keep you children motivated and these are only a few ideas. Feel free to get creative since you know your kids better than anyone!


-Daniel Enriquez, BCBA

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