What is Reinforcement in ABA?

Reinforcement is a fundamental concept in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that involves using stimuli to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior being repeated. In ABA, reinforcement is used to shape and encourage positive behaviors in individuals, particularly those with autism and other developmental disorders. There are various types of reinforcement strategies, but they all share the common goal of strengthening desired behaviors.

What is Noncontingent Reinforcement?

Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) is a strategy where reinforcement is given on a fixed-time or variable-time schedule, regardless of the individual’s behavior at the time. This means that the reinforcement is provided independently of any specific actions or responses from the individual. The primary goal of NCR is to reduce problematic behaviors by providing consistent reinforcement that does not depend on the individual’s behavior.

NCR is often used to reduce attention-seeking behaviors, disruptive actions, or other problematic behaviors by providing the individual with regular, predictable reinforcement. This can help reduce the motivation for the problematic behavior, as the individual receives reinforcement regardless of their actions.

Examples of Noncontingent Reinforcement

  • Scheduled Attention: A teacher provides attention to a student every 10 minutes, regardless of the student’s behavior. This can help reduce disruptive behaviors that are motivated by seeking attention.
  • Breaks: A child receives a break from tasks every 15 minutes, irrespective of their task performance. This can reduce escape-motivated behaviors, where the child tries to avoid tasks by acting out.
  • Preferred Activities: A therapist allows a child to engage in a preferred activity, like playing with a toy, at regular intervals, regardless of the child’s behavior. This can help decrease behaviors driven by the desire for that activity.

What is Contingent Reinforcement?

Contingent reinforcement is a strategy where reinforcement is given only after the desired behavior is exhibited. The reinforcement is directly tied to the individual’s behavior, meaning it is contingent upon the occurrence of the target behavior. Contingent reinforcement is used to increase the frequency of specific desired behaviors by providing immediate and direct rewards for those behaviors.

In ABA, contingent reinforcement is essential for behavior modification, as it helps individuals make the connection between their actions and the positive outcomes that follow. This understanding encourages them to repeat the desired behaviors in the future.

Examples of Contingent Reinforcement

  • Praise: A teacher praises a student immediately after they raise their hand to answer a question, reinforcing the behavior of raising their hand instead of calling out.
  • Tokens: A child earns tokens for completing homework assignments, which can later be exchanged for a preferred item or activity, reinforcing the behavior of completing homework.
  • Access to Preferred Items: A therapist allows a child to play with a favorite toy only after they complete a task or follow an instruction, reinforcing task completion or compliance.

What’s the Difference?

The key difference between contingent and noncontingent reinforcement lies in the relationship between the behavior and the reinforcement:

  • Contingent Reinforcement: Reinforcement is directly linked to the desired behavior. The individual must exhibit the target behavior to receive the reinforcement.
  • Noncontingent Reinforcement: Reinforcement is provided independently of any specific behavior. The individual receives reinforcement on a set schedule, regardless of their actions.

Which Reinforcement Strategy is Best for a Child?

The choice between contingent and noncontingent reinforcement depends on the specific needs and goals for the child. Each strategy has its benefits and is suitable for different situations:

  • Contingent Reinforcement: This strategy is best for teaching new skills or increasing specific desired behaviors. It is highly effective for behavior modification because it creates a clear connection between the behavior and the reinforcement.
  • Noncontingent Reinforcement: This strategy is beneficial for reducing problematic behaviors that are maintained by certain reinforcers, such as attention. It helps decrease the motivation for the problematic behavior by providing regular, predictable reinforcement.

Drawbacks of Each Strategy

  • Contingent Reinforcement:
    • May not be effective for reducing problematic behaviors if the reinforcement is not immediate or consistent.
    • Requires careful monitoring and timely delivery of reinforcement.
    • Can lead to dependency on the reinforcement if not faded appropriately over time.
  • Noncontingent Reinforcement:
    • Does not teach new skills or increase specific desired behaviors since reinforcement is not tied to any behavior.
    • May not be effective if the individual does not value the reinforcement provided.
    • Can be challenging to implement consistently in environments with limited resources.

What is an Example of a Noncontingent Reward?

An example of a noncontingent reward is providing a child with a break every 15 minutes regardless of their behavior. This break can serve as a form of reinforcement, helping to reduce behaviors motivated by the desire to escape tasks. The key aspect of this reward is that it is given on a fixed schedule and does not depend on the child’s actions or performance during the task.


Understanding the differences between contingent and noncontingent reinforcement is crucial for effectively applying ABA strategies to support children with autism and other developmental disorders. Both reinforcement strategies have their place in behavior analysis, each serving unique purposes and offering distinct benefits. By carefully selecting and implementing the appropriate reinforcement strategy, therapists and caregivers can help children develop positive behaviors and achieve their full potential.