Asking About Preferences

Asking the Client

For some clients, asking about preferences can be a very useful method.  We communicate our preferences to others on a regular basis.  Consider a “first date” scenario.  The couple will spend a great deal of time describing what their preferences will regard to many different areas of life.

RBT:  What would you like to work for this morning?
Client:  I want to read my food and draw in my journal.
RBT:  Would you rather have 15 minutes for drawing or 15 minutes with your book.
Client:  I would rather draw.

In this exchange, the client was able to communicate preference to the RBT.  Many clients that RBTs work with do not have the communication skills for an exchange like the one above. For these clients, other methods have been developed.

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Asking Caretakers

Parents, teachers, older siblings, and other professional who work with the client already know a lot about the client’s preferences. As you get to know a new client, these individuals will be a valuable resource for helping you to identify potential reinforcers. In many cases, the behavior analyst will have already asked the caregivers for reinforcer ideas using a structured survey. If it has been sometime since the survey was delivered, you can informally ask the caregiver for input at any time.

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Course Reading

Preference Assessment Survey Resources

View or download the examples below to become familiar with preference assessment surveys (source)
[button linking=”new_window” link=”” align=”left” size=”medium” style=solid” title=”Caregiver Survey”] Caregiver Survey [/button]

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[button linking=”new_window” link=”” align=”left” size=”medium” style=solid” title=”Student survey”] Student survey [/button]

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Offering a Pre-task Choice

More than any other preference assessment technique discussed in this lesson, this technique is most relevant to the everyday work of an RBT.  As the clinician delivering the programs, it is important that the RBT, more than anyone else, be able to determine what motivates the client at any given time.  There are a few different methods for offering a pre-task choice and the one that is used will depend on the communication skills of the client.

Before stating any demand, present the options available and ask the client to select a reinforcer.  If you plan to work with the client at his desk, ask him what he would like to work for before you even ask him to sit down at his desk.  If the client is transitioning to a less-preferred activity, conduct the pre-task choice before the client is asked to transition.  This small difference in timing will make all the difference.

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Offering a pre-task choice is the preference assessment technique RBTs use on a daily basis.


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Presenting Available Optionsbigstock-Group-Of-Primary-Schoolchildre-27384191

All behavior analysis programs include client reinforers.  It is very likely that there will already be some reinforcrs identified before you begin with a new client as an RBT.  Even if the client’s program is new, there will be reinforcer recommendations passed down from parents, teachers, or previous providers.  Present these options to the client and ask what she would like to work for.  Smaller items can be placed together in a bin for the client to visually scan.  If the items are larger or activity-based, consider using a reinforcer menu.

Using a Reinforcer Menu

A reinforcer menu is convenient and portable.  It allows the RBT to assess preference without actually showing or demonstrating the options.  It is especially useful for presenting activity options.  Pictures or text may be used depending on the skills of the client.

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Ethics of Reinforcement

Why reinforcement is not a bribe

As a provider in the field of behavior analysis, you will encounter someone at some point that challenges your use of reinforcement.  Their comment or argument might sound very convincing and leave you wondering if what you are doing is harmful.  You yourself may even be wondering how reinforcement is different from bribing.  Bribing sounds so controlling and desperate, but isn’t reinforcement supposed to engage clients in a positive way?

The different between reinforcement and bribing is timing.  You will notice that all the techniques for establishing an incentive to motivate are implemented before the demand is placed on the client.  Have you ever worked with a client and found yourself in a compromised position, trying to negotiate a resolution?  Consider the parent in the grocery store from Lesson 2.  The parent had a tantruming child at his feet.  If the candy did not stop the tantruming, the parent might begin pulling nearby items from shelves trying to find something to motivate the child to get up.  In this scenario the parent is reacting to a situation.  A proactive approach would be reminding the child before entering the grocery store that following the rules for good behavior will result in something desirable at the end.

When you are challenged about your use of reinforcement, remember that bribing is a reaction to a difficult situation and the promise of reinforcement is proactive.

Adult Clients

Working for reinforcement is something we all do in our daily lives.  As an RBT for adult clients, your job will be to arrange the daily activities of the client so that the client stays motivated.  It is best to avoid situations where loss of reinforcement would be restrictive.  That is, the goal is to provide reinforcers that enhance the client’s experience.  For example, rather than having a client work for TV time, the client could work for access to TV-related reinforcers, such as a favorite DVD or additional time at the TV.  In this scenario you will not be denying the client access to the TV if the reinforcement is not earned.  Rather, you will be enhancing the TV watching experience if the reinforcer is earned.

As adults, clients need to be regarded in a way that is respectful to their age.  It is not acceptable to talk to an adult client in a tone of voice you might use with a child.  While both adult and children need to be regarded with respect, it is especially important that adults with disabilities are not treated as children.  It is absolutely possible to motivate an adult client using reinfrocers without creating situations where you are denying access to items and activities that are available to all adults.  Consider how you could enhance their daily experiences and that will lead you to reinforcer possibilities.