Reinforcement is a technique widely used in behavioural therapy. It is often applied to children and people with intellectual disabilities in order to increase or develop different types of behaviour.

For this technique to be effective, the booster must be adequate. A booster is any stimulus that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated in the future. In this article we will learn about the different types of reinforcers , according to six classification criteria.

Behavioural modification through reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a type of operant behavioural technique , which serves to develop or increase behaviours. Normally, the behaviours we want to increase or enhance are those adaptive and positive behaviours for the child’s learning.

There are different types of reinforcers, which are applied according to the situation, the child (characteristics, age, preferences,…), his or her relationship with the therapist or the parent, the availability of resources, the context, etc.

Reinforcement is the procedure by which the application of a stimulus makes it more likely that a behaviour will be repeated in the future. On the other hand, the reinforcer is any stimulus that increases the probability of a behaviour being repeated in the future.

Some examples of reinforcers are: a compliment (verbal reinforcement), a type of food that the child likes, jelly beans, more time watching cartoons, a game, a book, tickling, jokes, etc.

Types of reinforcers

There are different types of boosters, depending on the criteria we use to classify them. We can classify them according to six different criteria:

1. According to their origin

Depending on the origin of their reinforcing value, we find the following types of reinforcers.

1.1. Primary

They have an unconditioned or innate value . For example, food or drink.


1.2. Secondary or generalised

They become reinforcers through learning . They have a more specific character.


They are reinforcers of multiple responses (for example money or tokens in the token economy system).

2. Nature

By their nature, we can list the following types of enhancers:

2.1. Materials or tangibles

Possess physical entity (for example a ball or a bicycle).

2.2. Edible or manipulable

They are eaten or can be manipulated (e.g. gum or candy).

2.3. Social

They are interpersonal in nature; encompass verbal and non-verbal language (e.g. praise or charity).

2.4. Activity

These are the behaviours that are pleasurable for the subject (e.g. going to the cinema or shopping).

2.5. Premack principle

It occurs when a low-frequency activity increases its probability of occurrence by associating it with a high-frequency one.

3. Reinforcement process

Depending on the reinforcement process, there are two types of reinforcers we find:

3.1. Extrinsic

The reinforcement is open and observable.

3.2. Intrinsic

It is a covert reinforcement (e.g. thoughts or images).

4. Administrator

We found two types of enhancers:

4.1. External

The booster is administered by someone to the subject , i.e. another person.

4.2. Self-reinforcers

They are self-applied reinforcers (by the same subject).

5. Receiver

Depending on who receives the booster, these can be classified as:

5.1. Direct

The subject himself is the recipient of the booster.

5.2. Vicars

The subject watches as another subject receives the booster .

6. Programming

We found two types, according to your programming:

6.1. Natural:

They have a high probability of presenting themselves in the environment (for example a good grade in the school environment).

6.2. Artificial

These are those that apply under specific conditions (e.g. tokens).

How is positive reinforcement applied?

As we have seen, we have many types of enhancers to choose from; our choice will depend on some variables already mentioned.

Furthermore, for positive reinforcement to be effective, it must be applied correctly . There are a number of guidelines for doing this, which are listed below:

  • Specify precisely the behaviour to be modified .
  • Identify and select effective enhancers (specificity and variety)
  • Manage boosters immediately (not delayed).
  • Contingent application (that after the behavior always goes the booster).
  • Control competing contingencies.
  • Avoiding the sacking of the reinforcers.
  • Estimate the optimal amount of the booster : deprivation/satiety and effort.
  • Adjust to the set reinforcement program.
  • Generalization and fading: designing a reinforcement program change when appropriate.

Reinforcement effectiveness

In the end, what matters is not so much the nature of the reinforcement or stimulus (i.e. what kind of reinforcement), but that the behaviour we want to increase actually increases thanks to that reinforcement. In other words, what makes a booster really effective is that it fulfills that function .

Thus, it is not so much that there are certain types of reinforcers that are more effective than others, but rather that everything depends on the situation and the subject.

Some evidence that a booster will be effective , are:

  • Let the child “hook” on the booster.
  • That he does not want to “leave” the situation by reinforcing it (looking for other stimuli, for example).
  • Let him ask for it.
  • Let him laugh or smile while he has the booster.

Other techniques

Other techniques similar to those of positive reinforcement, which have the same function (to make possible the development or increase of certain behaviors) are molding, chaining, fading and rule-driven behavior .

Bibliographic references:

  • González, A. (2005). Contributions of behavioral psychology to education. Sinéctica, 25, 15-22.
  • Vallejo, B.A. (2012). Manual of Behavioral Therapy. Volume I. Madrid: Dykinson.