Pyramid USA Consultant, Jaime Wedel, MEd, CAGS, BCBA, shares tips for how to find reinforcers with your learner. 

All members of the educational team want students to learn new skills – learning is essentially a student’s job! Now, think about what you’d want to know about a potential new job. One of, if

not the first thing, people want to know is, “What does this job pay?”  Help wanted signs often list salary and benefits, such as vacation time, sick leave, medical and retirement plan eligibility, and so on, even BEFORE worker expectations are detailed.

At Pyramid, we often say, “If it’s good enough for us, it’s good enough for our learners!” So rather than taking an approach of, “You must do this work because I said so”, we use a REINFORCER-FIRST strategy whether teaching PECS or any other lesson.  If our learners are interested in the “salary and benefits package” available (aka the reinforcers we have on offer), we can “hire” them to work! The difficulty becomes, for some of our learners, finding enough reinforcers to keep them motivated.  Below are some strategies for identifying potential reinforcers.

First, we gather up a pool of preferred items:

  • We get input from people who know the student well (parents and other caregivers, last year’s teacher, a therapist who has worked with the student for a long time, maybe even siblings or grandparents if available). We like to start by using page 351 in the Second Edition PECS Training Manual for quick information, or our  preference assessment form for more detailed information.
  • Use creativity and flexibility with the responses you get on the form. For example, if a parent says their child enjoys visits to a theme park, you could offer them souvenirs from the park or show them videos of popular rides at the park. If a previous teacher says a student liked a particular toy that you do not have, ask to borrow it for a day to see if the student is still extremely interested in it or not.
  • Don’t limit yourself and your learner to the listed ideas! Go around your own home or ask colleagues what popular items they may have for you to bring in and try with the student. I always walk through the toy section when I’m at bargain stores, sometimes nothing is appealing, but sometimes I’ve been fortunate to see something for a few dollars that has been a big hit with my students!
  • As you are considering options, remember options beyond toys and foods. We think about four main categories of reinforcers: Social (hugs, high-fives) Activities (wagon rides, swinging) Materials (food or a ball), and Sensory (Auditory, tactile, visual, olfactory, taste). Some people remember this as SAMS.

Next, once you’ve gathered these possibilities, try them out with your learner.

  • It’s easy to leave things around the room and see what they do when given free time. What do they do first and for how long? What do they do secondly and not at all?
  • You may pair two items at a time and let them make a choice as to what they’d like, and then pair choices with other items until to create a ranked list of items.
  • Lori Frost, CCC-SLP, the co-creator of PECS, taught me a simple method years ago-offer one item at a time by setting it in front of the student. If the student doesn’t interact with it, try another thing. If they do, offer that preferred item again, but hold it in your hand to offer it instead of just sitting it down for the student. The learner must like it a bit more to take it from your hand. Finally, don’t get into a disagreement with your student, but try to take the item back while they are playing with it.  If they try to hang onto the item as you start to take it, this is a GREAT sign that it is more highly preferred! 

Identifying preferred items and activities is an important first step to begin the new school year!  For more helpful tips on reinforcement and more visit Helpful Info.

Additional Support

To learn more about Teaching Critical Communication Skills attend a recorded online training!

For ongoing support with communication skills, AAC implementation, the PECS protocol, and the Pyramid Approach, join our online community on Facebook. Search “PECS User Support” on Facebook and request to join. This active group of over 30,000 professionals, parents, and caregivers is monitored by our Pyramid Consultants from around the globe daily!

Looking for upcoming workshops? Visit our training schedule! We recommend our PECS Level 1 Training via webinar or face-to-face formats where you can learn more about identifying reinforcers!

Written By Jaime Wedel, MEd, CAGS, BCBA

© Pyramid Educational Consultants, LLC. 2022