Recess Solutions: Primary Reinforcers and Shaping

  • Situation

    I have a student on the Spectrum who will not follow directions to come in from recess when it is over. During recess he is monitored by my classroom paraprofessional. He will run and say ‘no’ when it is time to come in while the other students and adults leave the playground, resulting in my paraprofessional being alone with him. There are instances when he has become aggressive, making this an unsafe situation. Although he is verbal, he typically communicates with short phrases; most often only to make requests. What may I do to prompt him to come inside without causing his behaviors to escalate, keeping in mind that I am not typically there to assist?


  • Summary

    If this behavior is occurring often, a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) should be conducted followed by a Positive Behavior Support Plan (PBSP). This helps the team prevent and/or respond to  the behavior while  allowing everyone to be consistent in their approach. Because this may be a dangerous situation, it is best to explore an immediate strategy using high interest activities, primary reinforcers, use of choices, and a shaping procedure. The  steps as outlined in the Process Section will assist you in the development of your plan.   In Summary;  choices of favorite activities in his classroom are shown BEFORE the bell rings and primary reinforcers are utilized as he the walks back to the room.   Leaving before the crowd can decrease the sensory overload which may be a strong  prompt for that  immediate ‘no’ response. In addition, he may be conditioned to expect that the adult will approach him to come into the building  when he hears the bell ring.  Refusal,  continuing his play and then receiving attention for these actions may actually be fun and reinforcing. The PROCESS steps detail exact procedures.  Remember, a Functional Behavior Assessment should be conducted followed by a Positive Behavior Support Plan.

  • Definition

    Primary reinforcers are typically food items. Such reinforcers increase desired behaviors. Shaping is building a desired behavior while gradually decreasing the prompts or reinforcers. In this case, the student’s ability to transition  from recess to his classroom will be built using primary reinforcers and high interest activities. Structured choices enable students to have control over situations they feel they may not have control over. It is a strategy that is very successful in decreasing interfering behaviors and increasing student’s positive behaviors.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 6-10
    • Planning Effort: Low
    • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Pre-requisites

    Knowledge of student’s primary reinforcers and favorite activities


    Visuals of favorite activities


    2 “see-through” containers with student’s favorite primary reinforcers (edibles)

  • Process

    1. Determine the student’s high interest areas and primary reinforcers

    2. Create a visual strip of two of his favorite activities in the classroom

    3. Choose two of his favorite primary reinforcers (edibles) and place into two different see-through containers or zip lock bags. Be sure to break up larger items as cookies into smaller pieces

    4. Five minutes before the recess bell rings, show him the visual of activities and ask him which one he will do when recess is over and he is in the classroom

    5. When he chooses the activity be positive “Oh, play dough, yes we can tell Mrs. ___ to get that out when we get back to the room.”

    6. Next show him the two containers/bags and ask which he would like while you walk to the room. When he responds say for example: “OK, cheese balls, I will get you one when we get to the gate (whatever landmark is close and away from the playground).  Let’s go now before the bell rings.”

    7. Once you reach the first area provide the reinforcer.

    8. Break the walk to the classroom into short segments stating: “When we get to the ___ tell me and I’ll get another.”

    9. Continue providing the reinforcer until you reach the classroom

    10. Once you reach the classroom state: “You walked so nicely to your room, tell (teacher) to get the (favorite activity/item).

    11. Keep track of successes and after approximately 5 successful days begin to make the distance a bit longer before providing the primary reinforcer until you have faded to only providing the activity in the room.

    12. Intermittently provide a primary reinforcer to help maintain the behavior

    13. Always provide positive verbal reinforcement

    •  IF: the student refuses to come – do NOT continue to verbally or physically prompt; wait quietly for a few minutes. If he comes close just show the primary reinforcers and wait. If he reaches for one, begin to get the item and slowly walk towards school. Continue the above steps with little talk.

    • IF: the student does not come within 10 minutes and is safe, consider calling for assistance on a walkie talkie if you are alone. Do not talk to the student. If walkie talkies are unavailable, consider assigning an adult to be responsible to inform the office or go and  check on the paraprofessional and student if they do not return to the classroom within a specific time frame.

    • Remember: An FBA and PBSP should be conducted

  • Documents and Related Resources



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