The Wonders of Preference Assessments

Preference assessments are fabulous tools for anyone looking to change someone's behavior. I've used them in the classroom, in adult services, and even with my dog! (more on that below). Keep reading for the what, why, and how for preference assessments.

What are preference assessments?

Preference assessments are tools that help to determine a preference hierarchy of potent reinforcers for learners with a variety of abilities. This hierarchy indicates which items/potential reinforcers are highly-preferred, moderately-preferred, and low-preferred. Generally however, I conduct these assessments with items/activities that the individual or caregiver reports is somewhat preferred, so you usually don't have a "low-preferred" item, and rather just not as preferred as the others. 

Why preference assessments?

Determining this hierarchy is important to support any behavior change protocols, as the individual will be more likely to work for highly-preferred reinforcers. And note, I emphasize the individual here, because this, like many other topics I discuss, needs to be individualized. What works for one learner, may not/will not work for another. I could work all day every day for a bowl of watermelon (provided I don't have access to it whenever I want - a topic for another day). My husband? No way would he do anything for watermelon. A brownie, yes. And yeah, maybe I'd work for a brownie too, but if I was deprived of watermelon (think: start of Summer, when it's finally in season...) I'd probably choose that over the brownie as something to earn after I clean the bathroom.

So why not just ask? Why the whole to-do with an assessment?  Well, for a few reasons.Often, these assessments are used with people (or animals) that have limited communication abilities. Additionally, they may have restricted interests and would not be able to "think" about other things they might like. Aside from their restricted interests, they may not have been exposed to a variety of novel, potentially reinforcing items, therefore don't know they like or can ask for them.

These assessments are key. The effectiveness of any behavior plan or skill acquisition program depends on the reinforcement procedures. People work for things. You need to find out what those things are. And this is the tool to help you with that!

How do I run and use preference assessments?

First you need to determine the type of preference assessment you want to run for your learner. There are two different types of assessments: indirect and direct assessments. Generally, I will run both. An indirect assessment means that you are indirectly determining potent reinforcers by asking the caregiver or staff, sometimes the individual themselves. Usually, I will use this information to narrow down which items I will present in the direct preference assessment I choose. Direct measures include single-stimulus preference assessment, paired-preference assessment, multiple stimulus without replacement (MSWO), duration-based preference assessment, and free-operant preference assessment. I won't go through each one - that's a talk for another day. Today I will talk about the ones I use the most.

Paired Stimulus (Forced Choice)
I used forced choice preference assessments almost exclusively. This is a trial-based method for preference assessment, which means the stimuli are presented to the learner in a series of trials and the responses to these stimuli are measured and ordered by preference.Each trial in a forced choice assessment consists of the simultaneous presentation of two stimuli/items. The practitioner records which of the two the learner chooses (or which one he/she chooses first if the learner ended up grabbing both before you could stop em!). During this assessment, each stimulus is matched randomly with all other stimuli in the set. This provides data that show how many times each stimulus was chosen. The stimuli are then ranked by preference. Studies have shown that forced choice assessments sometimes outperform successive choice assessments in identifying potent reinforcers, as well as yield more accurate distinctions between preferences (high vs. moderately vs. low-preference reinforcers) (Pace et al., 1985; Piazza et al. 1996; Paclawskyj & Vollmer, 1995). While it may seem that this assessment may be time consumer, I've found that since I am most familiar with this one, it's a breeze for me to complete. As long as you have your items and materials ready to go, this won't take any more time than the others. Plus - the data analysis is super easy!

Check out this video of me running a forced choice preference assessment with my dog Lucy. I used the most high-preference reinforcer (as determined by this assessment) for some behavioral programming I did with Lucy (such as identifying and retrieving toys by name). Worked like a charm!

Single Stimulus (Successive Choice)
This assessment is another trial-based preference assessment and is considered the most basic preference assessment available. For this assessment, a stimuli/item is presented and the learner's response to the stimuli is recorded. These stimuli are presented one at a time, in random order. Generally, the data collection is more involved, as it requires the practitioner to note the approach vs.. rejection behavior, frequency of interaction, and/or duration of play/engagement. After recording, the next item in the sequence is presented. This assessment may be helpful with learners who have difficulty with selecting among an array of items.

Free Operant
Essentially, this assessment evaluates the activities that the learner engages in most often when able to choose freely and their effect on behavior. The idea is that whatever someone chooses to spend their time doing, can be used as a potent reinforcer when made contingent on engaging in a low-probability behavior. The assessment requires the practitioner to observe the learner and record the activities they are engaging in when given free-reign of his/her environment. In order to determine the preference hierarchy, the practitioner records the duration the learner engages with each activity; the longer duration, the more likely it is "preferred". Ordering the durations from longest to shortest will give you a hierarchy of preferred items from highly preferred to less preferred. This assessment can be great when you may not have a set list of potential reinforcers to test (no opportunity for indirect measures). I also use this assessment for when new ABA therapists start so they can begin to build rapport with the individual (as these assessments are generally seen as less intrusive and, well, free play. Additionally, this is a great one to use in a natural setting and with ABA therapy practices (or classrooms) that do not have it in their budget to go out and buy special items to use as potential reinforcers.

With any new program, I always run a preference assessment. I often re-run them as well as time goes on, to ensure I still have the most potent reinforcer, or if I need to change things up. It may take some time to get used to running them, but if you practice it at home (like I did) and cut yourself some slack while you are running them, they will become easy and you will see why they are so important! Why guess at what might be reinforcing for a learner and probably get it wrong, and waste more time grasping at straws? This is why this tool is so handy - it allows us to get right down to the bottom of the reinforcement question to make our behavior planning easier and more efficient.

Check out these resources for some samples (note I did not make these data sheets)

Direct Preference Assessment Data Sheets:


Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). An overview of evidence-based instructional practices (EBIPs). In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2008). Applied behavior analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Random DIY That You Don't Need but Totally Want

Leave it to the world's worst procrastinator to decide to make a pillow for my cats with a piece of foam I found while attempting to clean my house. I had JUST walked into my office to clean it up, when I found a large piece of packing foam that I received in a package to keep some fragile vases safe. I decided this was perfect for a cat bed, and that this was the best time to do it. If I wait, I rationalized, then it would just be adding to the clutter. But if I made it right away, I wouldn't be hoarding garbage and would be making my cats happy. #ADHDJustification

Ready to see this odd-ball, last minute craft I decided to make for no reason? Great! I present to you, the DIY Cat Bed (with foam and pajamas)...

Step 1

Grab your supplies. Make sure to snap a pic in terrible lighting.
You will need:
  • Yarn (or thread)
  • Old pajamas (or fabric)
  • A needle
  • Foam piece (or stuffing)
  • Tape (not shown)
  • Scissors (not shown)
  • Safety pins (not shown)
The foam in this picture had plastic around it. I took it off for this project.

Step 2

Put the foam in the pants. I stuffed the rectangular foam in the pajama pant leg (the width of the foam fit quite nicely in the pants). If you are using fabric, then cut the fabric so it fits around the foam.

Step 3

Thread your needle. With thicker yarn, threading it through the hole can be hard because it's more likely to fray. Wrap a piece of tape around the end to make it sturdier so you can press it through the needle hole.

Step 4

Measure out enough thread to sew the side(s) you're working on. (I was only doing two sides, and I roughly measured about 7x the length of the sides I had to sew, for no reason other than I wanted to be safe and keep up with the randomness of this project) Cut the thread/yard and tie a knot at the end (I doubled my knot)

Step 5

Begin sewing! I used a blanket stitch, which I miraculously knew how to do. If you don't know how to do that, check out this video for a quick tutorial. Search other YouTube videos for other stitches too.

Before sewing, make sure you are lining up your two sides together. This end was the hemmed bottom of the pant, so it was a little easier because I knew it was even. Even so, I folded the hem inward for a nice clean edge. Look at the follow pictures for how I did it.

Step 6

Finish it off with a knot. There are ways to hide the knot, but I couldn't figure it out. This is for a cat for crying out loud. They don't care.

Step 7

Do the other side. My "other side" was way more complicated because I started with the neatly hemmed bottom of the pant leg. So this side required me to cut the leg from the rest of the pant which is wider than the leg, and way more awkward. It resulted in this mess portrayed for you in this series of pictures...

This is from cutting the leg from the pant. Total mess. Using kitchen shearers may not have been my best idea.
To help make sure I was sewing somewhat evenly, I folded the edges so they matched up in a straight line.
To keep them folded, I used safety pins to hold them in place. Make sure to take them out when you get to them while sewing!
When  I started on this side, I had to manage these weird corners. The reason there was so much extra fabric is because it was larger up at the top of the left (you know, because thighs and butt are bigger than your ankles, usually). Therefore, I had to figure out how to stuff these corners inward and sew around them. I guess I could have snipped along the seam, sewn (sewed?) a tighter seam similar to the ankle area of the pants, and did the same way I did on the first edge, but this seemed more fitting to the scenario.
Once I lined up the wonky corner and stuffed it inward, I began to sew with the blanket stitch again
Get to the end, do the corner stuff again, and knot it up.

Step 8

Force your cat to lay on it by picking him up and putting him on the bed and constantly petting him until he lays down. 

I'm sure this tutorial was not helpful at all because I doubt you have a piece of rectangular foam lying  around, nor do you save old pajamas with a hole in the crotch, but alas, maybe it has inspired you to be creative today.

Ever done a random DIY on a whim? Let me know below! I'd love to know I'm not the only one...

5 Ways to Enhance Your Teaching Over the Summer

As teachers, you never stop working. Even on your "summer off" you will be toiling away, strategizing new classroom management techniques, shopping for new classroom manipulatives, and outlining new lessons to enhance your students' learning. Here are 5 ways you may have not considered spending your summer that will improve your teaching for the upcoming school year (now if we could only use these to earn CEs)

Operational Definitions in the Classroom

So we all know what an operational definition is, right? Well, if not, here's a quick review: 

Operational Definition: A way to define a behavior in simple, observable, and measurable terms. You want it to be specific, like a SMART goal.

So, now that we've jogged our memory on what they are, why are they so important? Here's another quick review:

Writing an operational definition is crucial, as it defines the behavior so specifically, that it can be accurately measured, assessed, and treated by any person working with the individual. The point is that, no matter who reads the definition, they know exactly what the behavior looks like.

Okay great. But now how do you use them in the classroom? Keep reading for 6 different ways to use operational definitions in your classroom.

Teacher Appreciation 2017!

It's that time of year again, where we appreciate all the amazing teachers out there supporting our learner's of all ages and abilities. As a way to show our love and appreciation for these teachers, Teachers Pay Teachers is throwing a Teacher's Appreciation Sale!

Procrastination: How to Stay on Track

Procrastination. We know this word all too well (some of us more than others). Procrastination can be useful, to an extent. People argue that they do better under pressure, and while that may be true for some, sometimes you just have to get started on something immediately. Other times, your procrastination (or avoidance behavior) takes over and all of a sudden something is due, but you still can't get started. If any of this sounds like you, this post is for you. 

seriously struggle with procrastination and initiating tasks (did I mention I have executive functioning difficulties?). Over the years I've read lots of articles and tried out a variety of ways to help manage my procrastination. Here are some things that work for me:

Autism 101: Support Strategies {Part 4}

Welcome to Part 4 of the Autism 101 series. Today we are diving deeper into specific support techniques for working with people with ASD. If you want an overview of different interventions used with people with ASD, check out Part 3. For more information on what autism is, and how to identify it, check out Part 1 and Part 2 respectively.

Today we will be talking about different support strategies for those with an ASD diagnosis. Keep in mind, that we've previously discussed how each person with ASD is different, thus these supports and ideas are not a one-size-fits-all approach. You will need to take these approaches and individualize them to your students or adults you're working with.
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