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What's wrong with non-contingent reinforcement?

Non-Contingent Reinforcement is an antecedent-based strategy for decreasing challenging behavior. It works with the function of the behavior by providing the maintaining consequence on a time contingent schedule instead of as an unintended reinforcer for the challenging behavior. By changing when the maintaining consequence is delivered, it can break the contingency and abate the problem behavior.

So what is the problem with non-contingent reinforcement? Well, nothing is wrong with the procedure itself, at least nothing I’m going to delve into in this article. The problem is in the name. Years ago as a student at FIT, I learned that the term “non-contingent reinforcement” was wrong in every way, and more recently as a co-instructor for FIT I taught this concept to students myself, but I see this term everywhere and even still use it myself. So while you don’t have to go back and rewrite all of your behavior plans, you should understand the reasons why this label is incorrect.

First, let’s look at the term “non-contingent”. Well, is non-contingent reinforcement actually non-contingent? No! While it is not contingent on behaviors, it IS contingent on time. Some other appropriate replacements for this term could be:

  • Response-independent

  • Time-based

  • Time-contingent

Now let’s look at the second part of this term “reinforcement”. Reinforcement is the delivery of a stimulus immediately after the occurrence of a behavior which increases the future frequency of that behavior. This is a consequence, but non-contingent reinforcement is an antecedent strategy, not a schedule of reinforcement. This stimulus provided in this procedure does not follow any specific response and it only abates behavior, it does not provide a long-lasting change. While we should be using stimuli that have been reinforcing the challenging behavior, it should not be confused with providing “reinforcement”. Alternatives to the use of “reinforcement” include:

  • Delivery of a reinforcer

  • Stimulus delivery

Now you can go out there and continue providing your response-independent delivery of a reinforcer, time-contingent stimulus delivery, or even non-contingent reinforcement with a better understanding of the procedure and its label!

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