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What Is a Reinforcer?

Mother and Daughter Reading a Book in Bed | Parent Like a Professional

The term "reinforcer" is one that you will hear frequently throughout the Parent Like a Professional site and the topics that we discuss.  The concept of reinforcer is one of the most fundamental components to the study of human behavior, and so it's owed some attention and understanding.

What is a Reinforcer?

A reinforcer is any item, activity, event, sound, etc. that is used immediately after a specific behavior, which then increases or strengthens that behavior.  That's obviously not the super technical definition, but we want you to understand the concept, not memorize for a graduate course.  Reinforcement, then, is the process of delivering a reinforcer.  

Reinforcers can improve, strengthen, or increase behavior.

There are two ways in which reinforcers can be used: either present or remove a reinforcing item, activity, event, sound, etc. immediately following a behavior.  Over time, that behavior will improve, strengthen, or increase. 

Examples of reinforcers presented:

  • Your child takes his dinner plate out to the sink without you having to ask, and you give him a cookie for dessert. (item presented: cookie)
  • Your child takes out the trash when you ask the first time, and you give him a high five when he walks back in.  (activity presented: high five)
  • Your child puts her laundry in the laundry basket when getting ready for bath, and you allow her to put bubbles in the bath. (event presented: bubble bath)
  • Your child completes her math homework on her own, and you put on her favorite music to listen to. (sound presented: music)

Examples of reinforcers removed:  

  • Your child cleans up her room without your asking, and you let her remove the baby wallpaper she's been complaining about for months. (item - wallpaper removed)
  • Your child offers to help his sister with her difficult homework, and you allow him to skip the rest of his own homework for the night. (activity - homework removed)
  • Your child creates his own study flashcards for an upcoming test, you allow him to stay home rather than going to the grown up dinner that he's been grumbling about. (event - dinner removed)
  • Your child offers to take the dog out for a  walk around the block, and when he returns you turn off his little sister's Frozen soundtrack that he hates. (sound - removed)

Now remember, a reinforcer strengthens or improves behavior, so usually the thing being removed is unpleasant or unwanted.

There are other things that can function as reinforcers, but these are the main and most obvious ways that reinforcement occurs.

Though it may be a bit more than you think you want to learn, I'll liken it to this:

  • You have one specific problem that you need to address with your child, and so you learn the steps for addressing that one problem.  Later, another problem pops up and you go back to find the steps on addressing the next problem.  You do this over and over throughout the course of your time being a parent every time that a new problem presents itself.


  • You learn the fundamentals behind how behavior works and can troubleshoot new problems as they arise because you understand the basics.

It's like buying a hammer to nail a few things into your wall, then later buying a wrench to fix a pipe in the sink, and then later a drill.  Rather, you could have just purchased a whole tool box knowing you'd eventually need all of the tools in it.

Turn to Parent Like a Professional for reliable solutions and practical how-to advice for both the specifics, as well as the fundamentals, of parenting.  We've got the individual tools, as well as the whole toolbox, so that you can achieve success!

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