The difference between bribery and reinforcement

By: Angela Martin

child-tantrumAs a behavior analyst we provide a lot of training to parents, teachers, etc. in basic behavior principles and how to change a child’s behavior.  I often hear from parents, “oh, you want me to bribe my child into behaving”.  This is one of the misunderstandings that we come across in ABA therapy.  Bribery is not positive reinforcement.  Bribery is when you give the child something BEFORE the desirable behavior occurs.  Bribery is when you give the child want they want first, and then the child will promise to behave. Parents will often then have to wait and see if their child chooses to engage in the appropriate behavior. It is also a bribe if the child is screaming and you tell them that if they quite screaming you will give them the desired item.

Many times and especially with children on the spectrum they do not deliver on their promise with payment up front.  Many parents, teachers, etc. will get frustrated because they do not understand why the child is not doing what they asked when they gave the child the desired item up front. Also, if you give the child the reinforcer while they are screaming that will more likely reinforce screaming in the future to access reinforcers.

A real life example of a bribe:  A child does not want to transition to the cafeteria during school and he starts to tantrum. While the child is screaming the teacher says, “If you quit screaming I will give you a candy heart”. The child quits screaming and gets the candy heart.  As soon as the class starts to transition to lunch the child starts to tantrum again in the hallway.

Rather than paying for desired behaviors, positive reinforcement is something that is given to the child contingent upon appropriate behavior.  So the parent or teacher will give the child the reinforcer when they engage in the appropriate or desirable behavior.  Reinforcement is delivered AFTER the child engages in the expected or the appropriate behavior.

The difference between bribery and reinforcement is that with bribery the reinforcer comes before the child has engaged in appropriate behavior, and with positive reinforcement, the reinforcer comes after the child has engaged in the appropriate behavior.  This rule is called the Premack Principle or Grandmas Rule, “First you finish your dinner, then you get dessert.”  It is very important that parents/teachers do not back down even if the child starts to engage in problem behavior to obtain the item; first you do this, then you get that.

Example of positive reinforcement: First give the child a choice of two activities that you would want them to complete. (“Do you want to clean up your toys or take out the trash?”)  This will make the child feel empowered because they get to choose the activity. Then you need to find out what they want to earn for completing the task. (What would you like to work for?”) The last step is to make sure the child understands the contingency for receiving the reinforcer. (“First clean up your toys, then you will get to play video games for ten minutes.)

Reinforcement is a practical way to shape appropriate behaviors.  Look at it this way, few adults would want to do their daily jobs without getting a paycheck.  The paycheck for kids however, does not have to be the latest video game system or some other expensive gift.  Adults are reinforced by monetary items but more so when their boss or coworkers show appreciation for all that they do at the workplace.  Adults will work harder if the job they are doing is intrinsically motivating and the same can be said for our children.

So in conclusion, bribes and reinforcement are not the same.  Give your child a choice of a non-preferred task and reinforcer.  Make sure that they understand what is required of them to receive the reinforcer.  Also make sure that you follow through on whatever task you want them to complete and that the task is reasonable.  The most important step to remember is to give them the reinforcer as soon as they complete the task, so you do not inadvertently reinforce some other behavior.