Tips that Help with Tough Kids
Reinforcement for Tough Kids

Working with Tough Kids is always a challenge. The trick is to find ways to positively support Tough Kids' appropriate behavior in ways that are meaningful to them.
Finding effective reinforcers for Tough Kids requires some thought, but keep in mind that there is always some edible, natural, material, or social reinforcer that will work! You just have to find it. Reinforcers should not cost a lot of money, should not take a lot of staff time, and should be natural whenever possible.

Once you've found meaningful reinforcers, a simple set of rules can make them even more effective. We call these rules IFEED-AV. Each letter in the name stands for a strategy that makes a reinforcer more effective.

The IFEED-AV Strategies

IMMEDIATELY. Reinforce immediately. The longer you wait, the less effective the reinforcer will be. This is particularly true with younger students and students with severe disabilities.

FREQUENTLY. Reinforce frequently. It is important to frequently reinforce when a student is learning a new behavior or skill. If reinforcers are not delivered frequently enough, the student may not produce enough of a new behavior for it to become well established.

ENTHUSIASM. Be enthusiastic. It is easy to simply hand a reinforcer to a student. It takes more effort to pair it with an enthusiastic comment. Modulation in the voice and excitement with a congratulatory air conveys that the student has done something important. This may seem artificial at first. However, with practice, enthusiasm makes the difference between a drab, uninteresting delivery and one that indicates something important has taken place.

EYE CONTACT. Make eye contact. It is important to look the student in the eyes when giving a reinforcer, even if the student is not looking at you. Like enthusiasm, eye contact suggests that a student is special and has your undivided attention. Over time, eye contact may become reinforcing in and of itself.

DESCRIBE the behavior. The younger the student or the more severely disabled, the more important it is to specifically describe the behavior you are reinforcing. We often assume that students know what they did right to earn a reinforcement. However, this is often not the case. The student may not know why reinforcement is being delivered or may think it is being delivered for some behavior other than you intend. Even if the student does know what behavior is being reinforced, describing it is important for two key reasons:

  • Describing the behavior highlights and emphasizes it.
  • If the behavior has several steps, describing it helps to review the specific expectations for the student.

ANTICIPATION. Create excitement for earning the reinforcer. Anticipation can motivate students to do their very best. The more hype the you use, the more excited students become to earn the reinforcer. Presenting the potential reinforcer in a mysterious way helps build anticipation.

VARIETY. Just like adults, students, particularly Tough Kids, get tired of the same things. A certain reinforcer may be highly desired, but after repeated exposure, it loses its effectiveness. It is easy to get caught up in giving students the same old reinforcers time and time again. However, variety is the spice of life. Generally, when teachers are asked why they do not vary their reinforcers, they indicate that the ones they use have worked very well. We have found it is necessary to change reinforcers frequently to keep reinforcement effective.

--Excerpt from The Tough Kid Book, 2nd ed.