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Understanding Noncontingent Reinforcement for Autism

November 11, 2021


Noncontingent reinforcement is a method of behavior modification that is used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) to reduce challenging behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or other developmental disabilities or differences. Noncontingent reinforcement gives continuous access to a reinforcer that is independent of a specific behavior. Noncontingent reinforcement, also known as NCR, is not dependent on behavior and is supported by research as an effective intervention method for challenging behavior.

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What is noncontingent reinforcement?

Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) can be used in education by a teacher or in the home by a parent to help reduce the challenging behaviors by providing continuous access to the reinforcement. For example, if a student at school engages in challenging behavior for the function of getting the teacher’s attention during story time, the teacher can place the student next to them during story time. The student getting to sit next to the teacher eliminates the need and the function of having to engage in problem behaviors for attention because they are receiving the reinforcement of the teacher’s attention already through noncontingent reinforcement. The student is no longer motivated to have negative interaction because they have received what they wanted without having to earn it through positive behavior.

Noncontingent reinforcement can be effective in managing adverse autism behaviors because the child loses motivation to engage in a problem behavior. With applied behavior analysis and noncontingent reinforcement, specific behavior can be altered, reduced, or eliminated. Functional analyses can be done to determine the function of the behavior and why the child may be engaging this way or what they want to occur or gain access to. Taking data on behaviors is one of the strategies that a behavior analysis will use and take into account when attention maintained destructive behavior is occurring. Taking data and being able to analyze it can help to implement a schedule and strategy that is personally tailored to your child’s specific needs.

How do you use noncontingent reinforcement?

Noncontingent reinforcement is used on a schedule to better analyze and manage the effects of noncontingent behavioral patterns. This method is most effective when the function of the negative behaviors is to gain attention. This can happen when children are competing for attention for their teacher or instructor. It can also happen at home with many siblings when a child is having to engage in challenging or destructive behaviors to get individualized attention from a caregiver or parent. Using a schedule to provide individualized attention can help problematic behaviors to go into extinction.

For example, if the child is wanting attention from the teacher, the teacher can assign a specific time each day that the student can have extra attention from them. It might be the last five minutes of lunch or recess where the student can let the teacher know of any concerns they have. Or it could be five minutes after classroom instructions are given for the teacher to provide one-on-one assistance to the child to make sure that instructions and expectations are understood.


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At home, it could be a 10 minute period of time after returning from school that the child has the opportunity to share everything exciting that happened at school that day. If the parent sits next to the child and is an active listener, the need for problem behavior will not be an option because they are already receiving the attention they crave. The last 10 minutes before bedtime that the child gets to spend with their parent one-on-one for reading and building healthy family bonds is another way to use noncontingent reinforcement to prevent challenging bedtime behaviors. A child may get out of bed or have elopement issues for the purpose and function of getting attention. Creating that extra meaningful time can remove the function and desire to engage in atypical behaviors.

What is a noncontingent reinforcement schedule?

A noncontingent reinforcement schedule is a schedule that a teacher or parent will use to provide continuous reinforcement to a child for the purpose of managing adverse autism behaviors. Children that may be engaging in challenging behaviors for attention are perfect candidates for using noncontingent reinforcement schedules. Using the examples above, it may be a seating assignment next to the teacher at each story time, or taking 10 minutes after returning home from school for a child to tell you about their day, or sharing one-on-one time just before bed for story time. Whichever type of schedule works best for you, make sure it is consistent and that you are able to follow through for maximum impact.

What is the difference between contingent and noncontingent reinforcement?

Contingent and noncontingent reinforcements are very different. Contingent reinforcement is contingent on behaviors. An example at home would be to have a child finish eating their vegetables to get a dessert. The reinforcement is dependent on the behavior. If the vegetables are not eaten, then the child does not receive a dessert. If the child does eat their vegetables, they receive their dessert, or reinforcement. An example at school would be to turn in their work before going to recess. Going to recess is contingent on finishing and turning in their work. If the work is not turned in, the child does not go to recess.

Noncontingent reinforcement is not dependent on a behavior and happens on a set schedule. For example, having a child sit next to you for story time, regardless of how good or how bad the child’s behavior was earlier that day, is noncontingent reinforcement. The child does not have to earn the reward. This method eliminates the child’s need to engage in negative behaviors and can reduce or even eliminate any problem behaviors that a child has used previously for attention.

Conclusion

Noncontingent reinforcement can be used with a set schedule that is completely independent of behaviors to help manage adverse autism behaviors. This strategy eliminates the function and need to seek out problematic behaviors for attention. When implemented properly, you should notice other positive traits, such as an ability to focus better, stay on task, complete assignments, and strengthen family bonds. Contact an ABA therapist or a behavioral interventionist to learn more about how noncontingent reinforcement might help you and your family to decrease unwanted or atypical behaviors.

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