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Making Reinforcers Powerful & Effective

Using your reinforcers effectivly in special education will help your classroom run smoother and your teaching more effective. Reinforcers keeps students interest while helping you establish instructional control.

Using reinforceres effectively in special education will help you shape student behavior and make your classroom run smoother. The key is to follow these steps to make sure that the reinforcers are powerful and as highly motivating as possible.



Reinforcers can be very powerful when used effectively. They can help staff develop instructional control, give students motivation and shape instruction.

Why Use Reinforcers?

Let's begin by talking about what a reinforcer is and isn't. A reinforcer is something that your student wants. It might be an activity, food, toy, person, etc. Once you discover what the reinforcer is, you can use it to motivate the student to do what you want (complete tasks, comply with directives, make appropriate choices, etc.) While I have heard some say that reinforcer is just a fancy name for a bribe, but it isn't. Everyone is guided by motivation- adults, students, elderly, etc. For example, would you obey every traffic law if you weren't motivated to by the threat of tickets and fines? Would you go to work every day all day if you weren't being paid? Of course not! We all need to be motivated... our students are no different. 

You Have Reinforcers... Now What?

Once you have figured out what your students' reinforcers are, you need to make sure that they only get access through you. This will look different from classroom to classroom. In my classroom, I keep reinforcers in a 3 drawer rolling cart with clear drawers. My students can see all of the reinforcers, but they aren't able to gain access unless they have met all of my requirements.

Using reinforceres effectively in special education will help you shape student behavior and make your classroom run smoother. The key is to follow these steps to make sure that the reinforcers are powerful and as highly motivating as possible.

We use a token system in my classroom. Currently, all of my students are on 5 penny (tokens) strips. At the end of each half hour period my students have to "cash in." If students have 5 pennies they gain access to the reinforcer cart. If not, we talk about why and what needs to happen during the next period in order to get all 5 pennies. Read more about this system: Using A Token Economy System.

Make Reinforcers Powerful


  1. Make sure that students only get the reinforcer by earning it. Depending on the reinforcer & student, you might need to work with the family to make sure that the student isn't getting it for free at home.
  2. Don't use the reinforcer for everything. For example, if the computer is the thing Ben wants the most, then I would only use that to reinforce new or challenging tasks. If I allow it to be used as the reinforcer all the time, his desire for the computer might die out. If I use it sparingly, it will become even more powerful.
  3. Pair yourself with the reinforcer. If you are giving the reinforcer to the student and then walking away, you aren't taking advantage of an opportunity to strengthen your bond and instructional control. Make teh reinforcer even better by being there. For example, if Ben's reinforcer is a ball, play ball with him. If it's cars play cars with him. Make the toy even more fun by being animated and silly. 


Want more information? Check out this BLAB session:


If you use reinforcers to their best advantage, you can shape students' behaviors and learning more effectively. Let me know how it goes in your classroom!


Using reinforceres effectively in special education will help you shape student behavior and make your classroom run smoother. The key is to follow these steps to make sure that the reinforcers are powerful and as highly motivating as possible.

Instructional Control: what it is & how to develop it

Have you heard the the term instructional control? It's very important in special education classes that the teachers, paras and therapists establish instructional control with their students. Sounds good, right?? Read on to find out what instructional control is and how you get it.

Developing instructional control with students in special education will help make learning smoother and more effective. Here are tips on establishing a bond and instructional control with your students.


The idea of instructional control is frequently heard in special education classrooms, especially those that use ABA and AVB protocols. Basically, instructional control is developing a positive working relationship with a student where you have established leadership control. You have control of the tasks and reinforcers. Through this positive relationship, students learn that complying with your directive is important and will have positive outcomes. If you have instructional control, students are going to want to work with you and will follow directions. Let me just add, you are still teaching students and they will never be perfect. You will still have to address behaviors at times.

Instructional control is established when you intentionally form a bond with a student. You have to take time to get to know your students and figure out what they like and don't like. To establish instructional control, you need to teach the students that you are the keeper of everything they want to have or play with.




When trying to develop a relationship with your students, you want to position yourself as the person who can give them what they want (ex: reinforcers, attention, etc.) Once you have figured out what students are interested in and want, you begin freely giving them out to students. For example, if little Billy really likes balls then you are going to have the coolest balls- bouncy balls, squishy balls, light-up balls, etc. Now when you see Billy you are going to give him a ball to play with or invite him to play ball with you. At this point, you aren't requiring Billy to do anything in exchange for access to the balls. You want Billy to think, "Ooh, I want to be with her. She has all of those balls that I really like." Then, you can start adding in some demands.

When you start adding in demands, you want to begin with easy known demands. This will help your students understand how instruction is going to go with you....it's the routine of instruction. As your students get the routine down, you should begin SLOWLY adding in more demands between reinforcers as well as new tasks. In my classroom, my students build up to working and following directions for a half hour before getting access to their reinforcers. We use a token economy system. Read more about this system: Using A Token Economy.
If you are using work for cards, make sure you check out this post: Durable Token Strips That You Can Make.




I would love to be able to tell you that once you go through the process of bonding with your student(s) and establishing instructional control you won't have to go through it again. BUT.... that's not true. Bummer, right?!?! There will be times when for one reason or another, you will need to re-establish your bond with your students. It can be a pain to go through these steps, but it will make a HUGE POSITIVE difference in your classroom. Let me know how you make out!


Developing instructional control with students in special education will help make learning smoother and more effective. Here are tips on establishing a bond and instructional control with your students.




Combine Academics and Fine Motor

Our students are coming to us with more and more needs, so it's crucial for us to find ways to target more than one need at a time. Here are 4 ideas for integrating fine motor activities with academic skills.

It is important to integrate fine motor practice with academics in special education. Our students have too many needs to target each one seperately. It is crucial that we target multiple skills at once.


You may be wondering why fine motor skills. I like to sprinkle fine motor skills practice throughout our school day. It helps students to learn to use both hands together, helps build motor memory and strengthens their fingers and hands. Here are a few tasks that we do regularly to mix fine motor practice and academics.


Students practice number identification and sequencing with this fine motor task.

It is important to integrate fine motor practice with academics in special education. Our students have too many needs to target each one seperately. It is crucial that we target multiple skills at once.

This is one of the tasks my students do during work centers at the math center. This is a task that my students can work on while the teacher is working directly with another student at the table.

It is important to integrate fine motor practice with academics in special education. Our students have too many needs to target each one seperately. It is crucial that we target multiple skills at once.
These clip cards are available HERE.

Clip cards are another task that my students complete daily. In this task, students are demonstrating knowledge (the skill the clip card is testing) while targeting both hands working together. You can cover TONS of skills with clip cards!


Applying stickers is great fine motor work, too. Add academics into the task by having students make sets or add with stickers. Read more: Using Stickers To Teach Math.

It is important to integrate fine motor practice with academics in special education. Our students have too many needs to target each one seperately. It is crucial that we target multiple skills at once.


Have students "show their work" by hole punching sets in an addition equation.

It is important to integrate fine motor practice with academics in special education. Our students have too many needs to target each one seperately. It is crucial that we target multiple skills at once.


There are tons of ways to add fine motor practice into your lessons and work tasks!!

It is important to integrate fine motor practice with academics in special education. Our students have too many needs to target each one seperately. It is crucial that we target multiple skills at once.

Fall Language Activities Target Multiple Skills At Once

Are you looking for a fun and easy way to practice receptive and expressive language? This game is a big hit with students and gives them a lot of opportunities to practice requesting, adjectives and colors. 


FREE language activities perfect for fall! Target receptive language, adjectives and body parts with these two activities.


In the fall, we do this game with either die cut leaves or apples. The materials for the apple game are free in my TPT store. I laminate the apples and leaves so that I can use them year after year. The only other materials I use is tape- any kind or color will do. Both the leaves and the apples should be in different colors and sizes. 

To begin, I spread the leaves or apples out on a table and tell the class or group that we are going to decorate a tree. I have a student volunteer to be the tree. Ideally, you want someone who can stand relatively still. 

Next, I call a student up and give them a verbal direction with an adjective, color or number. You can make your direction as simple or as complicated as the student can understand. For exapmple, you could say "Find the yellow leaf." to one student and "Get the small orange leaf." to another student. 

Once the student has the apple or leaf, give the student the direction where to put it. For example, "Put the leaf on his elbow." You could also combine the directives by giving one longer directive to the student. For example, "Find the large red apple and put it on his (the tree) back."


FREE language activities perfect for fall! Target receptive language, adjectives and body parts with these two activities.


Don't forget to ask the students who are waiting for a turn questions. For example, "Where did Joe put the apple?" "What did Jane put on the tree?"


FREE language activities perfect for fall! Target receptive language, adjectives and body parts with these two activities.

When you are all done, have the tree shake and see if s/he can knock all of the apples and leaves off. My kiddos think this is hysterical!


FREE language activities perfect for fall! Target receptive language, adjectives and body parts with these two activities.



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