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Understanding Noncontingent Reinforcement for Autism

December 11, 2023

Reinforcement is often used to encourage the desired behavior in children on the autism spectrum. Different types are used in different situations, but what is noncontingent reinforcement, and how can it help your child on the spectrum?

Noncontingent reinforcement, also known as NCR, means getting a reward without doing something specific. Research supports the claim that NCR works well to help with tough behavior and doesn’t rely on a particular action. Let’s learn more about it.

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What is Noncontingent Reinforcement (NCR)?

Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR), a part of applied behavior analysis (ABA), is a way to improve behavior in kids with autism or other developmental differences.

NCR works by reducing the child’s motivation to engage in challenging behavior. Combining applied behavior analysis (ABA) with NCR helps modify, decrease, or eliminate specific behaviors.

To understand why a child acts a certain way, a functional analysis can be done to figure out the purpose behind their behavior. Keeping track of behavior through data helps create a personalized strategy based on the child’s needs.

This approach is especially useful when dealing with attention-seeking behaviors.

Example of Noncontigenent Reinforcement in School

NCR can be used in education by a teacher or in the home by a parent. It helps reduce challenging behaviors by providing continuous access to reinforcement.

For example, suppose a student at school engages in problematic behavior to get the teacher’s attention during story time. In that case, the teacher can place the student next to them.

Sitting next to the teacher stops the student from misbehaving to get attention since they’re already getting attention from the teacher without having to do anything special.

The student is no longer motivated to have negative interactions. They have received what they wanted without having to earn it through positive behavior.

With applied behavior analysis and noncontingent reinforcement, specific behavior can be altered, reduced, or eliminated.

Example of Noncontigenent Reinforcement at Home

Noncontingent reinforcement is used on a schedule to 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.

At home, it could be a 10-minute period after returning from school that the child can share everything exciting that happened 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 spends with their parent for reading is another way to use noncontingent reinforcement to prevent challenging bedtime behaviors. 

A child might leave their bed or run away to seek attention. Spending more quality time with them can reduce the need for these behaviors by addressing the underlying desire for attention.


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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 to manage adverse autism behaviors.

Children who 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, 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 storytime.

Whichever type of schedule works best for you, ensure it is consistent, and you can follow through for maximum impact.

The Difference Between Contingent and Noncontingent Reinforcement

Contingent and noncontingent reinforcements are quite different.

Contingent reinforcement, according to the APA, is when rewards or positive things (like praise or gifts) depend on doing a certain behavior. 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. The child only receives a dessert if the vegetables are eaten. 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 recess. Going to recess is contingent on finishing and turning in their work. The child only goes to recess if the work is turned in.

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 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.

A Contingent vs Noncontingent reinforcement comparison table
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/understanding-noncontingent-reinforcement/

Managing Problematic Behavior

Noncontingent reinforcement can be used with a set schedule 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 focusing better, staying on task, completing assignments, and strengthening 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.

FAQs:

Q: What is an example of a noncontingent reward?

A: Noncontingent rewards can be positive attention, items, or activities. Depending on the child’s preferences, it could also be praise, toys, snacks, and more!

Q: What is continuous reinforcement?

A: Continuous reinforcement means repeatedly rewarding a behavior every time it occurs. This can include adding something positive or removing something negative to encourage specific actions.

Q: Can noncontingent rewards be used for adults with autism?

A: Absolutely. NCR can be effective for individuals of all ages. The key is to tailor the reinforcement strategy to the individual’s needs and preferences.

Q: Are there any potential drawbacks to using NCR?

A: While NCR is a valuable technique, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some individuals may respond poorly to NCR, and it may take time to find the right approach. Always consult with professionals who can help address these challenges.

References:

Noncontingent Reinforcement in After-School Settings to Decrease Classroom Disruptive Behavior for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4999362/

Do students learn better when seated close to the teacher? A virtual classroom study considering individual levels of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959475217305716

The Effects of Noncontingent Reinforcement with Signals on Problem Behavior in the Classroom Setting
https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8383&context=etd

Intervention Guide: Noncontingent Reinforcement
https://www.education.uw.edu/ibestt/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Noncontingent-Reinforcement.pdf

Schedule effects of noncontingent reinforcement on attention-maintained destructive behavior in identical quadruplets.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1297808/

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