The CAMI Tests: Reinforcement in the Classroom


We need to be aware that too much or too little of a good thing can make reinforcement more or less effective.

After seeing some trends over the past year in regards to reinforcement, I presented a quick reinforcement segment during a recent in-service specifically to address some common mistakes made by teachers (and support staff who help them). Some common issues I’ve seen include continuing reinforcement procedures long after they had been shown to not increase behavior, choosing rewards that were excessive in cost (effort, time, and money), or choosing rewards that are not easily accessible and therefore not appropriate, and finally recommending rewards that teachers and parents did not agree were appropriate.

Here is a quick summary that I handed out to attendees. Recently this was updated in order to be more consistent with behavior analytic principles. Please feel free to give me feedback.

The CAMI Tests

In a school setting, we use prizes and other positive events in an attempt to reinforce the behaviors we would like to improve. However, these consequences for behavior will most likely not be successful as reinforcers unless they pass the four-part CAMI tests:

Conveniency Test. Is the reinforcer typically available in a school setting? If not, can it be obtained with little inconvenience and at a cost affordable to staff or parents? A reward system is less likely to be maintained if the cost of obtaining items creates too much of a strain of time, effort, or funds.

Acceptability Test. Do the teachers approve of using the consequences with this child? Do the parents approve the use of the reinforcer with their child? Philosophical differences can create disagreement and therefore inconsistency between implementors.

Example: Janie loves sugary foods and will do just about anything to get them. However, Janie’s parents are using a low sugar diet with Janie. Therefore using food, especially those with high sugar content, might be unacceptable to use. Also, the school has now implemented minimal nutritional value standards. The teacher checks school policy and seeks approval from administrators and the general education teachers before proposing the use of edibles.

Motivation Test. How much access does the student have to the reward? Too much or too little access to a reward will affect the child’s motivation for it. A child who gets too much will have little desire to earn more. A child who gets too little can have strong desire to earn more or give up because he feels he will never get any. When it comes to motivation, be aware of the following 4 conditions that influence reinforcer effectiveness.

1. Deprivation/Satiation: Often referred to as not getting enough or getting too much of a good thing.

Deprivation: Not having access to something that is highly desirable (hungry, thirsty, tired, etc.). This is often used to make an item or activity more valuable or desirable to someone

Example: Joey hasn’t played with his favorite stuffed animal since last yesterday. Because he hasn’t played with his stuffed animal today, he is deprived, therefore, he wants to play with his favorite toy.

Satiation: Satiation refers to having too much (like the full feeling from eating too much pizza). If the same reinforcer is used over and over again, it will lose its reinforcing value.

Example: If Joey played with his stuffed animal when he got to school today, then again before and after lunch and now his teacher offers playing with his stuffed animal to get him to work he may say, “No!” Because his is satiated with stuffed animal play. (it’s a stretch I know, but work with me here)

2. Immediacy: A reinforcer must be delivered as quickly as possible following the target behavior that we are looking to increase, especially on newly targeted skills. The longer the amount of time that lapses between the behavior we want to see increase and the time the reinforcer is delivered, the less valuable the reinforcer will be, and the less likely that a connection between the behavior and its resulting consequence is made.
Example: We’re trying to teach Shaley to raise her hand to get the teacher’s attention. She spontaneously raises her hand to get the teacher’s attention in class, but we don’t respond to this until 5 minutes later, we’ve most likely lost the reinforcing value of whatever we’re delivering for that target behavior. We are now reinforcing whatever Shaley is doing, 5 minutes after hand raising.
3. Size: This refers to how much of the reinforcer you get/are giving.

Example: If Shawn reads 1 sight word card, and he earns a cup of popcorn, we will quickly satiate him and have to look for new reinforcers. A better way to reinforce might be a small cup of popcorn after reading 15 to 20 sight word cards, or completing all his reading work.

4. Contingency: Reinforcement delivery must be contingent, meaning, access to a reinforcer only occurs after the target behavior has been demonstrated.

Example: Brandon’s mother tells him he can read his book after he finishes his chores, Brandon proceeds to get out his book and read on the couch. Although the contingency is stated, it is not being enforced. Until the mother can limit and then provide access to the book provided that chores are complete

Improvement Test. Does the behavior improve or increase as a result of obtaining the “reinforcer”? Just because we think an item, activity, or praise is positive does not mean it works as a reinforcer. What makes an event a reinforcer is that it is successful helping to increase the frequency of the behavior. So if it is consistently not working, it’s time to change.

Example: Thomas rarely completes his multiplication quizzes. You decided to let him play a math game on an iPad when he finishes his multipication quiz. You follow this procedure and you see an increase in how often he completes his multiplication quizzes. Due to the improvement in desired behavior, you might be able to assume that playing math games on the iPad is indeed a reinforcer for quiz completion.

Please note that this is only a guide for implementing reinforcement procedures in the classroom or at home. It is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as specific advice. Before engaging in any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.


Reinforcement from Baby and Parent’s Point of View

Sometimes as parents it can be difficult recognizing examples of Positive and Negative Reinforcement. Often, but not always, in many scenarios both forms of reinforcement can be in effect, depending on your perspective. Here is a scenario (with some graphics) with which I’m sure most parents are all too familiar:

Baby just wants his pacifier, but he doesn’t know how to get it so he cries. If parent gives Baby the pacifier, it increases the likelihood that Baby will cry the next time he wants his pacifier. If Baby cries to gain access to his pacifier, then this would be an example of Positive Reinforcement for Baby’s crying.

In negative reinforcement, an unpleasant stimulus is withdrawn from the equation, once the desired response is generated. Looking at this situation from the parent’s point of view, she just wants Baby to stop crying. So she gives him his pacifier to get him to stop. If he stops crying, then the parent no longer has to listen to the crying (which is what the parent is trying to avoid). The removal of the crying can become Negative Reinforcement for the parent’s behavior of giving Baby a pacifier whenever he cries.

And I would do it all over again!

In my 15 years in mental health and education I have:

  • been called, well just about everything you can imagine
  • been spit on
  • had feces thrown at me
  • gotten at least one concussion
  • worked Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and New Year’s Day.
  • been peed on
  • went to the emergency room with a client who overdosed
  • Had a knife pulled on me by a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder (an “alt” nonetheless)
  • Saw a kid punch himself in the face so hard he busted his own  jaw
  • been bitten (too many places to list)
  • wiped a 28 year old man’s backside
  • had my glasses broken (twice)
  • had my life threatened (too many times to count)
  • been head butted (hence the concussion)
  • saw a kid rip his own tooth out (twice)
  • been hit with a metal chair
  • been kicked in the face
  • saw a kid punch through a glass door
  • been kicked in the groin
  • been punched in the groin
  • chased a kid through a neighborhood
  • had someone tried to choke me with a phone cord
  • consoled many upset parents
  • saw a child eat his own feces
  • saw a man try to eat a tampon
  • watched a kid pull his own hair out
  • saw a kid pull his eyelashes out
  • broke up a few fights between parents
  • Had to stop a parent from choking his own child
  • watched a grandmother get escorted out the school in handcuffs
  • had snot smeared on my face
  • had a student intentionally vomit and throw it at me


  • watched a mother’s face upon hearing her 5 year old speak for the first time
  • had my first student graduate from high school
  • sat and ate Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter meals with and prepared by clients
  • seen the excitement on a child’s face when they have learned to read
  • given high fives for peeing in the potty (after washing hands of course!)
  • gotten a hug from a kid who “couldn’t” show affection
  • had a student call me dad
  • had a student call me mom
  • been invited to birthday parties
  • trusted a client enough to hold my infant child
  • had students make me a thank you card
  • had hope for a child, when no one thought there was any
  • received a hug from parents

And no matter what, I would do it all again! (Well, most of it 🙂 )

Social Emotional Learning: A Mindset for Teachers and Parents

While conducting staff development today on social emotional learning, I began contemplating our true purpose and goal for teaching social emotional learning. I realized that teaching social emotional wellness skills requires a certain mindset.

As parents and teachers we must maintain a mindset that social emotional learning is not about teaching children how to behave, it’s about teaching children how to belong. When a maladaptive behavior surfaces, we must recognize that behavior is only a symptom. The presenting behavior manifests itself due to one or more social emotional deficits. Once we identify that deficit we can work on the next step, conducting some functional analysis, or determining the “why”. With this information we can begin adjusting our instruction and the environment to help the child acquire the skill.

Armed with information and a sense of vision, we can go about the work of promoting social success. Every interaction we have with our children should be driven by a vision of life-long social emotional success. Every situation is an opportunity to help your children achieve that vision. We must be intentional in every moment possible to teach and model the skills necessary for children to develop a feeling that they are a part of something greater. By helping our children develop these social emotional skills, we help them learn they are not just “a part of it”, but also feel like the they are accepted and contribute to the world. In other words, to belong.

The behavior management myth.

I want to speak briefly on the term behavior management. To put it directly, behavior is not something you manage. Behavior is something you teach. We control behavior no more than we control the weather. The difference being that we can control the environment and contingencies that elicit behaviors (that doesn’t work so well with the weather). I can teach and model my expectations for my kids and my students. I can provide them with reinforcement for the behaviors I would like to see more often. But to say that I manage the behavior would be incorrect. Every child has the choice to do what they want. I am only managing to do what I can to increase the likelihood that the child will choose to do what I want.

Mindsets for Teachers of Children with Emotional and Behavior Disorders: #1

“I don’t think I can…I know I can.”

As a teacher or parent of children with chronic emotional and behavior problems, every day you will face challenges that will test your mental, physical, and emotional faculties. The risks are great if you do not approach daily challenges with the proper mindset. If you approach challenges with an “I can’t” mindset, you begin to make every excuse for why you cannot intervene in a given situation. By making excuses you put yourself in state of learned helplessness. Helplessness will give way to feeling hopeless. A hopeless teacher is one that is prevented from engaging in rational decision making and now becomes vulnerable in a crisis situation. What it really does is make the teacher a victim to the behaviors of the classroom. A teacher who is a victim is ineffective, lacks motivation, and will engage in interventions that provide a temporary patch. This undermines the effectiveness of any intervention and will never promote lasting change.

You must believe in your own capacity to perform in light of these obstacles. Whether you are a teacher or a parent who works with children with emotional and behavioral problems, you have to believe you have the power to change the outcome of any situation, without exception. Believing in your own ability to make changes, no matter how difficult, sets the stage for positive, effective action. Refuse to quit, know that you can, and keep trying.