How to Reinforce Your Staff

We are all familiar with reinforcement. We use it daily with our students, our kids, our pets. We also use it with our spouses, neighbors, mail carrier, and selves (though you may not realize it). So, why not use it with our staff?


When Do I Use Reinforcement?

In general, reinforcement is used to increase behavior. If the future behavior doesn't increase, then what we think is reinforcement isn't. So if you praise your husband  when he takes his shoes off at the front door rather than tracking dirt all over the house, and he doesn't keep doing that, it wasn't effective reinforcement. If you give him a big hug and kiss each time he takes his shoes off, and he continues to do so each day, you've found something more reinforcing!

This principle applies directly to staff too. They absolutely have specific behaviors we want to increase, such as taking data, following behavior plans, and showing up on time. So let's work on reinforcing staff so they continue to be the stellar support they are.

How Do I Choose Reinforcement?

Essentially, you don't choose the person's reinforcement. They do. Often times we use preference assessments and reinforcer inventories to help determine this. It's not always feasible (or appropriate) to run a detailed preference assessment with staff as you would with a student. So what should you do?

You have a couple of options. You could straight up ask your staff what they find reinforcing. May seem awkward, but if you have a list of things you could reasonable provide them, you could go off that list to see what is motivating to them. Less awkward would be to just try out different reinforcers and see their effect on the future behavior of your staff. For example, you have a stellar week with one of your paras staying on top of your student's behavior plan. You provide the para with a reinforcer the end of the week (a $5 Dunkin Donuts gift card) as a surprise and a thank you for working hard to follow the student's plan. The follow week, the para works just as hard (maybe even harder!) to follow the behavior plan. Thus, your reinforcer worked!

Adults can be easier to "reinforce" than kids (I put "reinforce" in quotes, because technically we reinforce behavior, not people, but often times we don't make that distinction). By this i mean that, neurotypical adults tend to have better tolerance for delayed reinforcement, and have more "intrinsic" motivation to do their job/maintain expected behavior than children do. Often, praise and encouragement from administrators or lead classroom teachers can be very powerful, especially paired with tangible reinforcement. Thus, it may also be easier to fade reinforcement for staff, making it more manageable for you. This means providing reinforcement at a thinner rate (i.e. less frequent) overtime.

Individual or Group Reinforcement?

Should you provide reinforcement on an individualized basis (based on individual staff performance) or on a larger scale (when the entire team does well, everyone's behavior gets reinforced). I think the answer is both. Utilize both strategies to provide the most potent (and simple) reinforcement.

How Do I Implement?

First off, you always need to define the behaviors you want to increase. Otherwise, staff won't know what they need to do to receive reinforcement. This is often where we see discrepancies in work performance and it has little to do with motivation - more so about not defining the work behaviors required for the job. Simply saying "take data" isn't sufficient. We need to train staff explicitly and provide meaningful feedback to ensure they are meeting the criteria for the behavior you want to see.

Then, you need to determine which reinforcers you will provide, based on performance and their potency. Again, you may directly ask your staff what they like, or you can provide reinforcement contingent upon specific behaviors, and see if their specific behavior increases next time. Then you've found a reinforcer that works.

Alter your reinforcers too! Provide a gift card one time, then give a public shout out at staff meeting another week. Keep things interesting so it doesn't seem so routinized (and thus, doesn't become the expectation for doing a job well done).

Some more ideas on implementing a reinforcement system:

>>> Provide raffle tickets to use toward an adult "prize box" (include things like gift cards, coupons, coffee mugs, etc.)

>>> Have the reinforcers be random and a surprise. Instead of providing a reinforcer at the end of the week, show up some random day with an extra coffee as reinforcement. To you, it may be because they collected data consistently for 2 weeks. To them, you may be specific about it (this is always great practice), but it could also be framed as "just because" to show you appreciate their hard work.

>>> Have a Wheel of Prizes where the staff "earns" a spin and whatever the arrow lands on, the staff receives that prize, contingent upon work performance (whatever you define work performance as, specific to your staff's needs and abilities)

>>> Have Reinforcer Menus for staff to choose from contingent on identified behaviors. You can have this available on Friday, provided staff meet the criteria previously identified. Word it as a Freebie Friday type event that occurs weekly, or monthly, or however often you want to do it. It can coincide with any sort of school store that you have in your classroom to make it less prescribed for staff and feel more fun.

General Tips for Reinforcing Staff:

  • Know your staff. If you work with people who are devastatingly shy, maybe a huge standing ovation and award isn't the best reinforcer for that person. If your para is on a diet, maybe don't bring them a box of donuts for a job well done. Think about people you work with and reinforce accordingly.
  • Provide verbal praise throughout the day. No, not everyone's behavior will increase from verbal praise, and it's true we sometimes have student's who do not respond well to verbal praise, so there may be adults in the same boat.  However, verbal praise is simple and good practice, and available throughout our lives, so it's a safe bet that it will at least make them feel appreciated. Do not have verbal praise be contingent on meeting specific criteria. Praise often!
  • Allow ongoing opportunities to contribute ideas for your classroom. You would be surprised how reinforcing it can be to feel valued as part of the team.
  • Allow for choices throughout their day. Some examples of choices include: when they can take breaks, which classes they push in with students (vs.  you pushing in with students, for example), which days they have lunch duties, etc. Some things you may not be able to control, such as their classroom assignments, or which kid they are the 1:1 for, but whatever you can provide for choices is key, so staff feel part of the community and not just your assistant.
  • Communicate and model the behavior you want to see! This is key for both training and reinforcing behavior.
  • Classroom staff don't work for you, they work with you. You and your classroom are only as good as your direct care staff.

I hope this post helps in your quest to provide your staff a welcoming, reinforcing experience! Don't forget to grab this freebie, that includes 25 ideas for reinforcing your staff members!



ABA at Play: reinforcement procedures, scientific research, function-based interventions, antecedent manipulations, ABA teaching strategies, preference assessment, staff training, evidence-based practices, generalization, operational definitions, socially significant behavior, individualized supports, Positive Behavior Supports

5 comments

  1. I've always loved being an recipient of the random reinforcement. I loved the surprise element!

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  2. What a great and informative post. There is so much great info here for anyone who owns a business, has a family or who simply interacts with folks.

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  3. I used to manage a fairly large staff. I don't manage anyone now. I have to say, this post makes me miss it a bit!

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  4. Positive reinforcement can make such a difference! I always try to do this with my staff. They're so important to me!

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  5. This whole article is basically what I do for a living! I think a lot of businesses neglect positive reinforcers for their work staff because they assume adults don't need the reinforcement but it makes for a better workplace culture for sure!

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Thanks for the comments! I look forward to reading them :)

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