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The Biggest Mistake When Using Non-Contingent Reinforcement

Do you use non-contingent reinforcement with your clients? If so, make sure you're using it right and NEVER making this one BIG mistake.


Non-contingent reinforcement is a generally used antecedent strategy to reduce the motivation for the client to engage in challenging behaviors. But are you implementing it correctly?

When you are starting a non-contingent reinforcement schedule, there are a few different ways that you can implement it and determine what timing you're going to use.

  1. Continuous Schedule: You could provide the non-contingent reinforcement on a continuous schedule then then it over time.

  2. Inter-Trial Interval (IRT): You could set the time at or slightly below the mean IRT, which you would determine by taking duration data on the time between instances of challenging behavior and getting an average.

  3. Latency: You could set the starting time at or slightly below the latency to the first occurrence of the problem behavior.

One of the BIGGEST MISTAKES when programming a non-contingent reinforcement schedule into your treatment plan is failing to set the starting time duration appropriately. The point of non-contingent reinforcement is to provide the client with the reinforcement they are seeking BEFORE the problem behavior occurs and thus breaking the contingency between the problem behavior and the reinforcement.

You never, ever want to set the starting duration above the timing mentioned above, whether you're using the IRT or the latency method because that means that the problem behavior likely is already going to have occurred. It needs to be at or below that time, so they can get that reinforcement before the behavior occurs. Then, when you're thinning the schedule upon lower rates of problem behavior, you want to continue the delivery systematically and gradually just upon seeing that decrease in problem behavior and those extended time without challenging behavior.

A few other tips when using non-contingent reinforcement:

  • You also might want to use a variable time schedule of reinforcement so the pattern of a fixed time is not noticed.

  • Consider withholding the delivery of the reinforcer or the preferred item if the problem behavior is occurring at that time. Now, studies show that it's not necessary, but it is a good idea because if it keeps happening and keeps happening where they're in a tantrum or whatever the behavior is and you're reinforcing. You could inadvertently be reinforcing that problem behavior.

  • Make sure you are using reinforcers that are functionally equivalent to the reinforcer that is maintaining the target challenging behavior.

If you want to learn why non-contingent reinforcement is a COMPLETE misnomer for this strategy, take a look at my article "What's wrong with non-contingent reinforcement".

Be sure to learn more about non-contingent reinforcement on my podcast episode "All About Non-Contingent Reinforcement" where you can also earn CEU's for listening.

If you want to learn more about how to use antecedent strategies and more to reduce problem behaviors, check out our Masterclass: Behavioral Interventions for Challenging Behavior. This Masterclass will teach you EVERYTHING you need to know about programming for challenging behaviors and give you the tools to take into your session right away!

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