Pairing with Reinforcement

  • Situation

    I teach a Life Skills class and was just told that I am getting a new student who reportedly is very difficult to teach. He has bitten and hit his teacher and destroyed his work area at his last school. I am nervous and want to know what activities would be best to have him complete his first day in my classroom.

  • Summary

    On your student’s first day, plan to spend your time (this will likely take longer than a day) pairing yourself with reinforcement. If at all possible, obtain a list of items or activities that this student likes and have those accessible on their first day. You can review their records for a reinforcement survey, or call their former teacher or family to find out some things they like.

    It may be blocks, rubber bands, candy, a special book etc. Have as many of these reinforcing items available when they arrive. On their first day (or few days), do not place any demands for work or if you must, keep the demands extremely low and make sure that they are embedded within reinforcing activities. The idea is to teach your new student that when they are around you and in your classroom, their life gets better by getting things they like! This will reduce the chances for behavioral problems.

    • Identify reinforcers (items/activities that your student enjoys) such as: m&m candies, puzzles, books, or a favorite type of music. The student will have access to these items without any contingent actions on his/her part, but only when the student is not engaging in inappropriate behaviors such as biting or screaming.
    • Ensure that all of the reinforcers are already laid out and available to the student. As you lead the student to that area with the items, engage in positive and/or playful interaction to show that good things happen when the student is with you (the educator). The goal is to teach your student to respond favorably to being in your presence.
    • As the student’s bond with you strengthens, you may begin to add simple actions such as sitting near you or having an interaction with you in order to gain access to the reinforcers.

    This strategy aims to encourage your student to react favorably in your presence, rather than engaging in biting, screaming or knocking things over. Pairing may take a long time until it is successful.

  • Definition

    Pairing is the process where you establish yourself as a reinforcer to build a positive relationship with your student. (a reinforcer is something a child likes) When pairing, you associate a neutral stimulus (in this case, you and your words) with something that is already reinforcing to the child. The result of pairing is that the neutral stimulus (again, in this case, it is you) becomes reinforcing to the child via being paired with something that they already find reinforcing. Primary components of pairing:

    1. Present yourself and your words with the delivery of reinforcement.
    2. Reinforce the interaction with the child without placing demands. (Reinforcement is NOT contingent on the child doing or saying something)
  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13, 14-17, 18+
    • Planning Effort: Low
    • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Pre-requisites

    Knowledge of child’s reinforcers Tips for Choosing Reinforcers:

    1. Choose what you know the child likes.
    2. Choose items that are easy for you to control and go away by themselves so you don’t have to take them away (giving M & Ms rather than a stuffed toy you can give only once and have to take away to re-present it as a reinforcer )
    3. Reinforcers are only to be delivered if child is NOT engaging in escape related behaviors. The child is reinforced when he is interacting appropriately with you, even if that is only sitting next to you.
  • Process

    1. Have as many of the known reinforcing items available prior to his arrival to your classroom.
    2. Present the reinforcers with each interaction. For example, if he likes rubber bands, have a few in your hand and say “Good morning, how are you?”, then give him a rubber band to play with…or if he loves M&Ms, give 1-2 M&Ms.
    3. Continue to engage in demand free, playful interactions while you present reinforcing items to the student. Your words (playful, not directives) should come before giving the reinforcer so that your student learns that his situation will get better by just being with you (he is getting candy, the M&Ms or other reinforcing items).
    4. Reinforcement of the favorite item is free initially, then simply contingent on some form of interaction with you, such as a simple approach, or sitting near you.
    5. For transitions throughout the day, be careful that YOU do not become associated with the end of something fun by demanding him to go to his desk or do something somewhere else in the room. Preferably, carry the reinforcing items along with you and the student as you transition to another area.
    6. The goal of pairing is to teach the child to respond favorably to being in your presence and to come when he sees you or stay with you (rather than engaging in escape behaviors such as biting, screaming or knocking things over).
    7. Pairing does not just happen once and may take a long time.
  • Documents and Related Resources

    ABA Therapists (related article from website

    This resource was authored by Watson Institute Special Education Consultant, Lisa Plastino, M.Ed.

    If you have questions or concerns about the Watson Institute’s use of this information, please contact us.