Social Reinforcement for Verbal Children

When I first started doing ABA therapy, I found it hard to spontaneously think of reinforcement in a 2 or 3 hour session. I constantly racked my brain for cool ideas and always modeled other therapist’s or a program supervisor’s reinforcement when I had a chance.

What I found most challenging was that I had to make toys reinforcing since many children did not know how fun a toy can be. I also had to make myself socially reinforcing by doing wacky things and being a, “goof-ball.” Although at first I was extremely rigid and hesitant to let “loose,” I learned that children absolutely love when adults act funny and do weird things with toys.

Over time I developed my own style of reinforcement. Sometimes I am loud and spontaneous, other times I am quiet and relaxing.

Below are reinforcement ideas specifically for children who are familiar with reciprocal interaction. Most of these reinforcers are social and lack toys, but toys and other “props” can be used.

Social Reinforcement for Verbal Children

1. Making Silly faces: Scrunch up your nose, stick out your tongue, mess up your hair and make funny noises. This is a great way to encourage facial imitation for highly motivated children without demanding it!

2. Word Games: For children who have some language, a therapist may use phrases or words in a silly way to involve reciprocal interaction and spontaneous requesting. Words or phrases can be paired with physical reinforcement.

Example phrases could be: “ex-sqeeeeeeeeze me”- Therapist says this in a high-pitched voice while squeezing child or various body parts; “uh-oh spaghettios!” can be paired with holding the individual and letting go unexpectedly; “quit it!” while “annoying” the individual in a silly way. For instance, while messing up their hair or covering their face; “rock the boat” while rocking the chair back and forth; “that’s mine!” therapist plays a tug-war game with an object in a fun way. For instance, if playing with a toy, the therapist can snatch it away and say, “that’s mine!” and have the individual echo it back or request it. A couple of trials of this can turn into a great game of spontaneous language and developmental appropriate behavior.

3. The Ah-Choo game :
Version one—build up excitement by rubbing your nose and dragging out the “ah-ah-ah” part. Then, in an exaggerated way say, “Choo!” and fall back. After a few times of this, have the child complete the phrase. Children quickly learn that when they say, “choo” the therapist falls back.

Version two- for higher developmental individuals, a therapist can gather up stimuli to sneeze out. This can turn into an involved skit. For example, say to the child, “oh, I think I have to sneeze..ah-ah-ah… I don’t…wait…my nose is itchy” The child may be waiting anxiously as to what is going to happen, and as the therapist sneezes, pieces of paper fall out all over the child. Therapist then says, “oh dear, did I get you? Oh my goodness, your covered! Here, let me help you!” Children soon learn this little skit and can think of many things for the therapist to sneeze out!

4. Body Part Games: Therapist can use squirt guns, bubbles, tickles, massages, squeezes, stickers, air etc.. about anything to label body parts. A therapist can either ask or demonstrate while labeling: “Squeeze/Squirt/fan/massage/blow bubble on nose/hand/feet/elbow/fingers/cheek/ear/etc..?” This teaches body parts and expands language for those who have little language.

5. Deep Pressure Massages: For those who enjoy deep pressure, therapist can rub child’s arms, legs, eyebrows, cheeks, head. Using a vibrating toy is also a nice sensory enjoyment.

6. Wrap me up!: Therapist can use a blanket and wrap child up like a burrito. Therapist can also use this at the table. For instance, for children who are verbal, therapist can ask, “Do you want wrap me up?” and wrap child up in the chair. Then ask, “Tighter?” and if the child requests it, wrap the blanket a bit tighter. A Therapist can do this a few more times and then exclaim, “Phew! Too tight!” and quickly release. This is a nice little game before or after doing a program.

7. Using your tone of voice: Children may enjoy when a therapist uses a very low-low voice or a squeaky voice when praising. For example, if playing with a toy that goes up and down, a therapist can change their voice according to when the toy goes up and when it goes down. A therapist can also sing a song in a particular tone of voice. A therapist can ask the child, “Sing (song) in funny voice/deep voice/sqeeky voice?”

8. Spider-SPLAT! : Traditional Way: The therapist’s hand is the spider. Crawl the spider on the table while whispering and slowly increasing to a louder voice, “spider…spider…spider” and either HOH the child to splat or have the child do it independtly. When the child covers your hand to stop the spider, yell, “SPLAT!” and have the child repeat it.
Another way: have the spider crawl up the child’s body and when the child goes splat, tickle the child all over.

9. Roadmap: Use toy cars and drive up the child’s arm, tummy, legs, back etc… Therapist uses car noises and has the child imitate the noises. For reciprocal interaction, have the child drive the car up the therapists arm.

10. I’m Stuffed: Have the child stuff the therapist’s shirt with toys or stuffed animals. This alone may be enough for a fun-filled activity. But, for some added fun, have the therapist stand up and release all the toys on the child’s head (if soft) or lap. Therapist can label it, “it’s raining toys! Here comes the rain!” There are many variations to this game. For instance, a therapist can pretend to eat the toys and stuff them down their own shirt. The child could do the same by having the child pretend to eat the toy by making eating noises and have them stuff it down their own shirt.

11. Famous Chair Rides: Have the therapist swivel the chair, lift the chair up and down, tilt the chair back, pretend there is an earthquake, and rock the chair like a boat. Therapist can bring in excitement and anticipation by slowly tilting the chair back or quickly rotating the chair at various times. There are many things a therapist can do with a chair so these are only some ideas

12. Row Row Row Your Boat: Child and therapist are on the floor, sitting “criss-cross applesauce”. Grab the child’s hands and rock back and forth while singing “row, row, row your boat.” Therapist can pause and have the child fill in words to the song. When the child fills in the word/words, continue with rowing and singing. Therapist can also change the speed of rowing and can ask the child if they want to row “fast” or “slow.”

13. Buzzing Bee: For younger children , have a toy bee and slowly fly the bee while saying, “Bzzzz.” Fly the bee to the child and when the bee touches the child, exclaim, “Ouch!” Do this a few times to encourage spontaneous requesting.

14. Head Bonk: Lightly tap the child’s head with your forehead. Ask the child, “Head bonk?” When the child learns this game and initiates bonk by leaning towards you, call out, “Owwww!” and touch your forehead with your hand and pretend that it really hurts by using exaggerated facial expressions. Do not let the child tap your head too hard and only reinforce light taps.

15. Walk-Run: Grab hold of each of the child’s legs and slowly move them as if walking. Therapist says, “walk, walk, walk” and increases the walk to a trot and finally says, “ruuuuuuun” and move the child’s legs really fast.

16. Spaghetti-Arms: Grab the child’s arms and slowly move them up and down in opposite motions while saying, “One……..two………..three (make this pause especially longer than the other two to increase excitement) SPAGHETTI!” and quickly move the child’s arms up and down. Therapist can also tease the child by counting to 4 and then doing spaghetti arms.

17. Squeeze Machine: Grab the child’s arms and cross them across their chest so that it looks like they are hugging themselves. Therapist asks, “Do you want squeeze?” and child replies either by verbal prompting or independently saying, “Squeeze me.” Slowly pull on the child’s arms so that his arms are squeezing his own body. You can encourage more language by asking, “More squeeze?” or using different phrases such as, “Tighter?” “Do it again?” “What do you want?” “Squeeze me harder?” etc…

18. Jungle Call: Say to the child, “Do this—AHHHH” and as the child is saying this, tap on the child’s chest so that their voice is vibrating. For reciprocal interaction, have the child tap on your chest while you exclaim in your best jungle call, “AHHH—AHHH!”

19. Arms Up: If the child already has this receptive command then ask the child, “Arms up”. If the child does not have receptive understanding or does not have this particular command, then model it or physically prompt him to lift his arms up. As soon as he does this, tickle his or her armpits. Do not do this too often as the child may not want to put his arms up if you ask him during a program. I would probably use this during floor time or at the end of a program.

20. Rebounder fun: This is a good reinforcer for children who enjoy jumping. Therapist and child can jump together, therapist can hold child while jumping, or the child is the only one jumping. Therapist can play anticipatory games by holding the child’s arms while jumping and saying, “Stop” and stop the child from jumping. If the child has language have them say, “Go” or “I want go” or any combination of phrases for more jumping. Therapist can also hold the child under their armpits and help the child jump higher and faster.

21. This Little Piggy: This traditional nursery rhyme can be a fun game for young children. Sing the rhyme the traditional way by using the child’s toes. At the last part, “and this little piggy, went weeweewee all the way home” have the therapist prolong this by exaggerating, “AND this little piggy…THIS little piggy…THIS little piggy went WEEWEEWEE all the way home.” At the “weeweewee” part tickle the child’s leg and tummy.

22. Loud Kisses: Pucker up and kiss the child’s hands, cheek, neck or the many other body parts. This reinforcement is sensory and auditory.

23. Raspberries: Do a raspberry on the child’s tummy, check or hands. This is very similar to the loud kisses and many children enjoy the slobbering effect! Therapist can also pretend to whisper in the child’s ear, but then do a raspberry instead.

24. Roar!: In a scary, grunted voice, scare the child by saying, “ROAR” but tickle him instead of attacking him. You can also turn this around by telling the child to say, “roar” and when he does, Therapist falls back in fear. Therapist can turn this into a chasing game by having the child run from you. The child, though, will want you to say roar so you can catch him and tickle him and will mostly likely spontaneously request it. If not, prompt the child.

25. Emotions: Have therapist do an exaggerated sad face, happy face, scary face, or frightened face. Pair the expression with a verbal statement. For example, for the sad face, be loud and say, “Boo-hoo! Waaa!” and pretend you are crying. For a frightened face, have the child say, “Boo!” and have Therapist hide under a blanket or table.

26. Pull My Finger: Don’t worry, the child will not let out gas for this game! Gently pull the child’s fingers or toes. For children who are verbal, have them request it. For non-verbal children, wait to see if they lift their hands or feet for you to pull them.

27. Stretch: Grab the child’s arm and their leg on the opposite side and pull them while saying, “Streeeetch!” Repeat this by using the child’s other arm and other leg on the opposite side.

28. OWWW!: If the child touches your hand either during play or at the table, surprise him or her by saying, “OWW!” and pull your hand away. Then put your hand near the child and see if he will touch your hand again. Most likely he or she will!

29. Catch Me: Therapist holds the child and by “accident” let goes of the child, but catches them just in time. Pair behaviour with, “Uh-oh” so that child can request this again by using this phrase.

30. Soft Tickles: Whisper to the child, “Soft tickles” and you tickle the inside of their arms, their legs, feet, cheeks and tummy. This can be a relaxing activity or spice things up for those who are ticklish!

31. Soft/Rough: Use Velcro fruit or pieces of Velcro and rub them on child’s cheek. Label them as you are rubbing them on the child, “Soft, oooo” “Rough, Ouch!”

32. Feet/Hand Feast: Grab the child’s feet or hands and say, “I’m gonna eat ya’!” and make loud, exaggerated eating noises while pretending to eat them. Initiate requesting by pausing to see if child gives Therapist their feet or hands or verbally asks you to “Eat my (feet/hand)”

33. P-U!: Smell the child’s feet. After smelling them, Therapist scrunches up nose, waves hand in air and in an exaggerated way says, “P-U! Your socks are SMELLY!” Therapists who can really ham it up will get a lot of laughter from the child

34. Here comes the Train: Hold onto the child’s arms and move them slowly like a train. Therapist slowly says, “Chugga, Chugga.” Therapist then moves hands faster and faster while saying, “Chugga, Chugga” faster. At the climax, therapist says, “Choo-Choo!” and pretends to pull a cord in the air. Have the child imitate this action with the verbal saying.

35. Snoring Monster: Therapist lay down and pretends to be sleeping. Therapist makes very loud snoring noises. Prompt the child to tap you and say in a loud voice, “Wake Up!” Once the child says this, quickly get up but act sleepy and fall back asleep. Do this until Therapist is “wide awake.”

36. Too Hard!: Use a toy that requires pushing in pieces like Mr. Potato Head, pegs on a peg board or even legos. Therapist can put the piece in by himself or herself or help child to put piece in. To make this more fun, pretend Therapist is having a hard time pushing in the piece. Make “pushing” noises while doing this. Have the child imitate “pushing” noises.

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