Developing Active Learning Participation by Children with Autism: Capturing the Motivational Variables


Developing Active Learning Participation by Children with Autism: Capturing the Motivational Variables

By James W. Partington, PhD, BCBA

Partington Behavior Analysts, Walnut Creek, CA

The field of behavior analysis has been instrumental in helping parents and professionals identify effective methods for teaching skills to others particularly children with special needs. It is possible to conduct “task analyses” to break down complicated tasks into very small units of behavior and to develop each of the sub skills. However, what we really want is for these children to be able to learn from their everyday interactions with others who have not been highly trained nor use precisely defined teaching procedures.

To become a good learner, a child needs to develop many basic skills (Partington, 2006). He must learn to respond to words spoken by others (receptive language/listener skills) and use words to be able to ask for items or activities, label items he sees and hears, and talk about items and activities when the people and items associated with those items and activities are no longer present. He must also learn to sit and attend to a teacher’s instructions, matching objects, imitate motor movements and vocalizations, participate in group instruction, and engage in a variety of social interaction skills.

One of the most challenging aspects of attempting to teach a child with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder involves getting him to actively participate in learning activities for a sufficient amount of time to be able to acquire the skills that are being taught (Sterling, et al., 1997). But why should a child do anything for a parent or instructor? The answer is not because he should do it, nor because we are an authority figure (parent or teacher), nor because we are bigger and smarter. The answer to this question requires an understanding of motivational factors involved in the teaching process (Partington, 2008).


In our culture, it is not uncommon to attribute motivation as being an internal characteristic of an individual while also acknowledging that behavior can also be influenced by external sources (e.g., reinforcers). Our language about motivation often includes words such as “intrinsic reinforcers” and “extrinsic reinforcers.” These words are used in an attempt to describe why a person is performing an activity in a certain manner (i.e., highly active vs. low energy/little effort). People often describe a child as being “unmotivated” or “highly-motivated” as if the “motivation” was an internal characteristic or state of the child. Unfortunately this cursory analysis is not helpful to us in getting a child to actively participate in learning activities.

In actuality, when we refer to someone as being “motivated,” we are identifying some specific aspects of the person’s behavior that we have observed. For example, we would say that a child is highly motivated to learn to play the guitar if he spontaneously picks it up many times each day, does so as soon as his chores are done, strums it for a long time, and keeps practicing in spite of making mistakes. Thus, it is our observations of the characteristics of the person’s behavior that leads us to label the child as being “motivated” or “unmotivated”.

Our understanding of why people behave in certain ways is made possible by analyzing changes in behavior as a function of the interaction between behavior and its consequences (Skinner, 1953). This analysis is extremely helpful for our understanding of the variables that influence the characteristics of a person’s responding.


In order to understand how consequences are related to motivation, the concept of reinforcement must be clearly understood. Reinforcement is a process in which there is 1. a change in the environment, 2. that follows a certain behavior, and 3. results in an increased probability that the specific behavior will occur more often in the future under similar circumstances. The environmental change that occurs following the behavior and increases the future probability of that behavior is called a reinforcer. If the consequence doesn’t increase the behavior, then it isn’t a reinforcer. People often believe that they are reinforcing a child’s behavior when they praise the child following a particular action. Although the praise may reinforce or “strengthen” some the behaviors for some children, praise alone often doesn’t have the effect of strengthening behavior in many situations.

When attempting to determine why a particular item or activity may or may not have a strengthening or reinforcing effect upon a behavior, it is important to realize that any environmental change that follows a behavior may have a reinforcing effect. When attempting to motivate a child to participate in a learning activity, we will often try to ensure that we have something that we can control that can be used to reinforce his behavior. Reinforcing a child’s compliance behaviors during a teaching situation increases the child’s participation in learning activities.

Types of Reinforcers

There are different types of reinforcers available for parents or instructors to use. Some reinforcers do not require any experience or learning by the child to have their reinforcing effect (e.g., edible items and drinks), while other items and activities only acquire their reinforcing effect through a learning process (i.e., conditioned reinforcers such as praise, smiles and most enjoyable activities). Another type of reinforcer that is based upon the removal or termination of an unpleasant situation is referred to as escape motivated reinforcers.

Automatic or Self-Produced Reinforcement

It is important to note that any item or activity that follows a behavior, whether or not it is made available from others, can serve as a reinforcer. A child’s own behavior may produce changes in a variety of ambient environmental stimuli that may directly reinforce the child’s behavior. A child’s actions that result in input to any of the five sensory systems can produce this effect. For example, some children will find enjoyment smelling people’s hair, watching wood chips fall from their hands, hearing repetitive sound patterns, putting objects in their mouth, or twirling, bouncing, or touching items that vary in texture or temperature. The child can gain access to these reinforcers simply by engaging in actions that produce those outcomes.

Use of Reinforcement During Instruction

When a parent or an instructor attempts to get a child to participate in a learning activity, it is necessary to ensure that the potential reinforcer is actually wanted by the learner at that time. It is also important that the item or activity is more desirable that the outcomes the child can receive without having to do something specific for the adult. Once it has been established that the child desires the item or activity we control, it is necessary to ensure only an appropriate amount of responses and an appropriate level of difficulty of responding be required of the child prior to obtaining the reinforcer. It is important to create a balance between the momentary value of a reinforcer and the response effort being required to earn it. If a child wants something the instructor is using to motivate the child, but too much effort is required to earn it, the child will not be motivated to participate in a learning activity.

Establishing Social Reinforcers

Parents and instructors are often reluctant to use food, drinks or other powerful reinforcers to motivate a child. Although there are a variety of concerns that could be raised for using or not using those items as reinforcers, people have very few problems with the use of praise as a reinforcer. However, as was stated earlier, praise does not always function as a reinforcer.

One of the desired outcomes when we conduct teaching sessions is that the praise statements and actions of the parent or instructor become powerful conditioned reinforcers. Praise becomes a reinforcer when it is consistently paired with the delivery of other actual reinforcers. As the child gives the desired response, the parent’s or instructor’s posture changes, smiles, says words of praise in an excited tone of voice, and reaches for and brings the desired item closer to the child. Each of these previously non-reinforcing actions (i.e., words of praise and changes in our facial expressions) can take on reinforcing properties because they occur immediately before the actual reinforcer is delivered.

Motivation During Teaching Activities

In a structured teaching session the child usually sits at a specific location at a table and the instructor sits nearby. The teaching materials and reinforcers are also present and in close proximity. The instructor requests a child to engage in a certain behavior and then provides praise and other items or activities that “reinforce” the child’s responses. If an instructor is careful to ensure the maintenance of the child’s success at these table tasks and reinforcers are delivered effectively, the instructor will often find the child eager to join him at the table because these learning situations provide the child with opportunities to gain access to better reinforcers than the ones the child can get when away from the table.

Escape Motivated Responding

Sometimes, a child’s behavior may indicate that staying away from the table tasks is a better option; the child protests going to the table and readily leaves the table at the first opportunity. In such situations, the child has often learned that after a certain passage of time, the child will be able to get away from the table tasks. The child is sometimes told to “go play,” but “playing” may not really be the actual reinforcer. In reality, the actual reinforcer is that the instructor’s requests for the child to do certain tasks are now ended. Life is better without having to interact with the instructor. Although completion of tasks within a session such that the reinforcer involves escaping from the demands of an instructor may be an effective way to develop some skills, we would rather create a situation in which the reinforcement values of interactions with the parent or instructor are better than the reinforcers that don’t include interactions with them.

Ideally, social reinforcement for good learner participation is the most desired outcome of an intervention. If a child’s participation behaviors are reinforced by social reinforcers that are used with typically developing children, the child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is more likely to be able to learn from interacting with most adults.

Establishing Social Activity Reinforcers

For some children, the process of establishing conditioned “social” reinforcers will begin by pairing praise and changes of voice and facial expressions with the delivery of highly motivating food items or toys. A better choice, when possible, is to develop “social” reinforcers by pairing that form of feedback with activities that involve the parent or instructor as a critical part of the existing reinforcer. For example, a child may enjoy looking at a book, but if the parent can make the activity enjoyable to the child if they read the story or highlight some of the pictures with a fun interaction (e.g., seeing a picture of a bear the parent makes a “grrr” sound with a funny action that the child enjoys), the book with the parent’s interaction may become more enjoyable than merely having the book.

Motivational Variables Related to Spontaneous Language

The reinforcement value of the attention from and actions of the adult is critical for numerous reasons in addition to making it possible for a greater number of adults to be effective instructors of new skills. One important consideration involves the reinforcement of spontaneous language other than a child’s requests for items (i.e., mands). Most expressive language other than requests for reinforcers are typically maintained by social reinforcement. For example, consider a child who has been taught to label dogs during structured teaching sessions to earn raisins as a reinforcer. Why should this same child spontaneously label a dog he sees through the window when an adult is present but not raisins? However, the child may be more likely to spontaneously say “dog” (i.e., label) if the adult’s reactions have been established as reinforcers.

It is important to note that even if the adult’s actions are actual reinforcers, the adult’s behavior may unintentionally turn into a consequence that decreases the child’s tendency to spontaneously label items. When a child who has not received many reinforcers for spontaneously labeling items, it is important that the overall experience (i.e., consequences) be one of reinforcement.

When a child spontaneously labels the dog, it would be ideal to have the reinforcement equivalent to “bringing out the marching band.” However, if after the spontaneous labeling the adult attempts to teach the child new skills by asking the child questions about the dog such as what is its color or what does a dog “say”, the result may be that the child is less likely to spontaneous label items in the future.

Natural Environment Training

While parents and instructors help a child during eating, dressing, toileting and bathing activities, they have many opportunities to teach him a wide variety of new skills (e.g., imitation, labeling items). Unfortunately, there is often a learning history with respect to having learned that the instructor will require certain actions demonstrated by the child prior to ending a structured session at a table, but the expectations are different away from the table. The combined effect of the differences in the expectations to respond along with the absence of the stimuli associated with that expectation (i.e., tone of voice, position of instructor) and with the absence of the specific reinforcer, is that the child may be less cooperative in participating in the attempts to teach skills during daily activities.

However, there are several strategies that instructors can use to help encourage more active student participation during less structured teaching situations. It is important to start establishing a history of reinforcement for responding to instructions outside of the structured sessions. Even when not sitting at a table, the adult will ask the child to do something, and that the cooperation in doing these responses will result in reinforcement.

Probably one of the most important considerations related to the child’s cooperation involves the child’s overall history of interactions with the adult. If the overall net result of all the child’s interactions with the adult have resulted in the sight and actions of the adult as conditioned reinforcers, the child will be more likely to approach the adult, will spontaneously use his existing skills and follow instructions even when the adult doesn’t have a specific item that is often used as a reinforcer.

In most natural environment instruction, we want the reinforcement value of the interaction with the adult to be greater than the reinforcement value of the reinforcers that are available to the child without being required to respond to the adult. Although a parent or instructor can physically prompt a child to participate in the less-structured teaching activities (i.e., escape motivation), it is much easier to teach skills if the learner the child wants to be with the adult and do what they ask of him.

In summary, when we provide intervention to teach skills to a child, we want to ensure that our overall interactions with him result in his wanting to interact with us. We also want to ensure that our smiles and words of praise become established as conditioned reinforcers. Hopefully, our presence and actions will result in the child “running to us” rather than “from us.”


Partington, J. W. (2008). Capturing the Motivation of Children With Autsim or Other Developmental Delays. Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.

Partington, J. W. (2006). Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills- Revised: An assessment, curriculum guide and skills tracking system for children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Free Press.

Sterling, R. M., Barbetta, P. M., Heward, W. L. & Heron, T. E. (1997). A Comparison of Active Student Response and On-Task Instruction on the Acquisition and Maintenance of Health Facts by Fourth Grade Special Education Students. Journal of Behavioral Education, 7, 151-165.


James W. Partington, PhD, BCBA-D is the director of Behavior Analysts, Inc., and provides services to children and their families. He is a licensed psychologist with more than 40 years of experience working with children with developmental disabilities. His expertise is in language-based intervention with children who have language delays as a result of autism and other related developmental disorders. He is the author of The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills-Revised (ABLLS-R) and co-author of the Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS).

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