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.

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