Get Unstuck and Conduct a Preference Assessment
By Pam Scharping, M.Ed., BCBA
Feeling stuck with increasing desired behavior? Stop and ask, "How do I know for sure what motivates my student?" It is common to develop a list of reinforcing items for an individual by asking others for their opinion. This is valuable information; however, we should evaluate which of the student's most desired items will be most useful as reinforcers. Failing to evaluate could result in wasting valuable time, energy, and resources.
Preference assessments provide a systematic, data-based approach to evaluating a host of potential interests (e.g. food, toys, activities) for an individual. There are many types of preference assessments that have been used successfully to identify reinforcers. Asking the individual, caregiver interviews, reinforcement surveys, direct observations, and offering the individual a pre-task choice are common practices used to identify potential reinforcers.
The assessment method that produces the most accurate results involves presenting objects and activities systematically to the individual to reveal a hierarchy or ranking of preferences. Two methods of assessments include: Single Item and Forced-Choice.
Single Item or "Successful Choice": This is the quickest and easiest testing assessment method. Objects and activities are presented one by one. Each item is presented several times in a random order. After each presentation, data are recorded on how long the person engages with each object or activity. Graph your results. Pick the top two to use to teach a new behavior.
"Forced Choice" or Paired Method: Involves the simultaneous presentation of two items or activities. All items are paired systematically with every other item in a random order to ensure completeness. For each pair of items, the individual is asked to choose one. The most frequently selected item will likely be the most potent reinforcer. Since all objects and activities have to be paired together, this method takes significantly longer than the single method, but researchers found that the paired method was more accurate than the single method. It is recommended not to mix food with leisure items within this assessment, as food tends to motivate people more that toys/leisure items.
In conclusion, a preference assessment will yield a potential reinforcer, not a definite one. You will know for sure if a preference is a reinforcer if it increases the frequency of a behavior following each presentation.
Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.