How often do you think your teen hears the words: “No”, “You can’t”, or “You shouldn’t” in a day? For teens on the spectrum, they may find that it is difficult to live up to expectations or fit in with social norms. They may feel like they are always being told that they are doing things wrong. This can be extremely disheartening, and lead them to believe that there is no point in trying because they’ll never do it “right”. This is why positive reinforcement and a feedback system are so important. Teens on the spectrum need to be given opportunities to succeed at their own level and be celebrated in all their victories, big and small. 

Positive Reinforcement for Teens on the Spectrum

Positive reinforcement is anything that happens after the behavior that increases the likelihood that the behavior will reoccur. An item or activity is only a reinforcer if it strengthens the behavior. There are two main types of reinforcers, primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are often naturally reinforcing such as sleep, food, or water; where secondary reinforcers must be learned. Secondary reinforcers are developed over time and vary from person to person. Examples of secondary reinforcers are praising the student and/or putting a sticker or a letter grade of “A” on a worksheet.

For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the purpose of using positive reinforcement in the classroom is to assist them in acquiring new skills and maintaining these skills over time. The student receives reinforcement contingent on the occurrence of a specific behavior. The anticipated outcome is that his or her skill performance will increase or improve in anticipation of receiving the reinforcer.

Positive Reinforcement at Home

Some students on the spectrum may have limited items or activities that can be identified as positive reinforcers. Exposing these students to new items and activities can be helpful. Parents can observe their teen’s interest and take note of specific things that their child may find motivating. Some ways that parents can practice positive reinforcement at home include:

  • Celebrate and build strengths and successes: Tell your teen when you see them exhibiting positive behaviors. That sense of accomplishment can help create engagement and motivation. Celebrating seedling little things like putting away their backpack reminds them of a job well done.
  • Respect and listen to them: Some teens on the spectrum may not have the words to tell you what is bothering them. By being aware of their choices or actions you can help support them and understand where they are coming from. For example, if they get up and abruptly leave the table, think about the actions that lead to their leaving. Was everyone talking loudly over one another? Were there new people or foods at the table that they may have felt uncomfortable with? Connecting these reactions to the stimulus can help you respond in a more positive manner. Instead of admonishing them for getting up and leaving, you can speak with them about different strategies they can use when they are feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated. 
  • Practice empathy: In the moment, it may seem like your teen’s outburst is over something insignificant, but it is important to practice empathy and validate your teen’s feelings. No matter how it looks on the outside, their feelings are very real to them. 
  • Provide clear expectations of behavior: A change in routine or a new experience can cause teens with autism anxiety. Preparing your teen by talking through what will happen and what you expect from them can help them feel more comfortable and confident. When your teen practices those positive behaviors, provide positive feedback in the moment so that they can make the correlation between the positive behavior and the positive response. 
  • Set them up for success: Provide accommodations. Accept a one-word answer instead of demanding a whole sentence. Use a larger plate and offer a spoon to allow him to be neater at the dinner table. Use Velcro shoes or self-tying laces if tying is too frustrating.
  • Ignore the challenging behavior: Some teens may fall into a pattern of acting out as their way of communicating or getting out of an uncomfortable situation. By ignoring the behavior, your teen may learn that this is not the way to get what they want. When dealing with these challenging behaviors it is important for the entire family to be on the same page and consistent. If one parent is holding the boundary but the other parent gives in, your teen will not make the connection between stopping the behaviors and getting what they want. 
  • Alternate tasks: When you are asking your teen to do something challenging, it can be helpful to first incorporate activities that they enjoy or are good at. If they are in a positive mindset they may be more inclined to try the harder task.
  • Teach and interact at their learning level: Take care to set your teen up for growth and accomplishment, rather than the anxiety produced by constant failure or boredom.
  • Set up reinforcement systems: Use a simple, predictable process that rewards your teen for positive behavior. This reward could be verbal, a favorite activity, an object, or even a payment if your teen finds money motivating. Help them make the connection between the action and the reward by saying something like, “I saw how you cleaned up your dishes after dinner without me asking you. Would you like to have some extra tv time when we’re done cleaning up?”.
  • Pick your battles: Strive for balance. Focus on the behaviors and skills that are most essential. Be sure to include positive feedback and intersperse opportunities for success and enjoyment for you and your family. 
  • Use positive/proactive language: Use language that describes what you want your teen to do (e.g. ‘I love how you were calm when we had to change plans!’), and try to avoid saying ‘NO’, or ‘don’t’ (e.g. ‘stop yelling, it isn’t a big deal.’).

Encouraging Positive Behaviors at Seven Stars

At Seven Stars, it is our belief that using positive motivators is much more effective than using punitive approaches. Behavioral approaches should focus on encouraging desired behaviors through positive attention and rewards.  It is often most effective to ignore unwanted behaviors rather than apply some kind of consequence.

Each day, students start the day in a Launch meeting where they establish a goal they want to work on for the day.  Each evening in the Re-entry meeting, students review with staff their progress on the goal for the day. Students carry a tracking sheet with them in their student binders. For each block of activity throughout the day, the staff mark “pluses” on their tracking sheet for participating appropriately in the desired activity.  Staff also note on the tracking sheet what the student is doing well and areas where the student needs to improve. The student’s total number of pluses earns access to desired activities and can be used to purchase items from the student store.

When a student does engage in unwanted behaviors that are significantly disruptive, it is important to understand the function of that behavior. Typically, the student is communicating a need with their negative behavior. Usually, they are overwhelmed by anxiety or sensory issues and need a break.  Sometimes they are looking for attention. In these situations, a student is directed to take a break and “reboot.” When this happens, staff work with the student on coping skills and communicating about their needs.  Sometimes the student writes or talks through a Behavioral Chain Analysis in which they learn about their needs and generate ideas about how they can handle the situation better next time.

In addition to the daily points and feedback system, staff carry tokens in the form of paper stars.  Staff give these tokens to students when they see them engaging in a positive or desired behavior. Students also use these stars to earn desired activities or items from the student store.  

This random reinforcement strategy can be especially effective when students are struggling with unwanted behaviors and is very effective at redirecting the behaviors of an individual student or group of students.

Seven Stars Can Help

Our distinctive Autism and Autism program design provides formal multidisciplinary assessment, as well as holistic functional observation and assessment. It offers our team critical insights into functional strengths and needs and enables us to refine the accuracy of the child’s care and long-term recommendations. Typically, our students want to be successful, but the increasing complexity of adolescence has exceeded their current capacity to manage social relationships, academics, emotions, and behaviors. Our students present with many strengths and challenges.

Our foundational philosophy is that our students have the ability to succeed if they are given a safe, therapeutic environment that provides the opportunity to practice new skills, build awareness, increase awareness and mindfulness, and build self-efficacy. Success is possible and Seven Stars is here to help every step of the way. We turn challenges into an opportunity for growth and success. For more information please call (844) 601-1167.