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.


Darwin Learns the Limbo!

The third installment in my Fish Academy series. My precision in delivering reinforcement continues to improve. Factors such as location and time of delivery are very important to consider in training sessions. If I deliver a reinforcer too far away from where the trick is performed, or if I deliver too long after the trick is performed, the fish can associate an incorrect behavior or an incorrect form of the behavior with reinforcement. When reinforcement is delivered with precision, the benefit is that learning becomes more efficient for the learner. See how it helped Darwin learn this trick extremely quick!

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: #4 Creativity is Vital to Survival

Creativity is vital to survival.

It’s easy to get upset when an administrator suspended our students or assigns them to alternative education placements. I would go as far as to say that it offends me. I take it personally because I feel there’s something that we could have done something better. We could have intervened quicker, provided better support for the student, or come up with a consequence that would have a more lasting positive effect than letting them get to stay home or in any other way allow them to escape the problem.

Talk to my students daily about the goal of coming to school. The main goal obviously is to learn right? Therefore every behavior they engage in must be in some way related to accomplishing that goal. As the teacher it is my duty to make sure I help them learn the necessary skills so they can attain that goal every day. My function is not to make them do it, it’s to teach them how to do it for themselves. But these kids don’t want to stay in school, right? So how do we do this? Often times, creativity in the moment is the key to survival.

Let’s think of this scenario. Michael is a third grade student who detests math. Every day during math, he yells out, talks to other students, and taps his pencil loudly. The teacher in her frustration calls for the assistant principal, who comes down and takes Michael to the office, talks to him for a while, then sends him back to class an hour later. The next day, as math class begins, Michael starts his routine of yelling out and acting a compete fool. This time Michael is escorted to the office and is told to sit on a bench until he can be seen by the assistant principal and is given work assignments to complete while he waits. Two hours later, the assistant principal calls Michael into the office. Not only has Michael not completed any assignments, he hasn’t started a single one. When the AP talks to him, Michael comes out with every reason he couldn’t do the math work; he was sick, his head hurt, his poison ivy rash made his arm itch so much he couldn’t write, and his dog died so he couldn’t concentrate on the work. He was playing the sympathy card now and it appeared to be working. The assistant principal got Michael to admit he was disrupting the classroom, had him make an apology to the teacher and sent him back to class for time served. However, the next day it happens again, only this time Michael gets two hours away from class and in-school-suspension for the remainder of the day. The behavior continues when Michael returns the following day and this time he gets in-school-suspension for two days. Do you see a trend here? Michael kept playing the hand he’d been dealt, and it was paying off every time, each time with increased pay off. Michael was using his creativity to avoid having to do work and no one was to catching on. This is an example of a time when we need to out manipulate the manipulation. Michael has worked out the system. If he acts up he will be removed from the demand. Give everyone a diversion story and he gains sympathy, gain sympathy and he will never be held accountable.

However armed with another weapon I am determined to out manipulate this manipulation. When you rationally detach yourself from the crisis, you can begin a situation analysis of this problem. We have determined that Michael is desperately trying to get out of work and learning. Let’s try to give him the opposite of that. The opposite of avoiding the demand would be to maintain it. Eventually, Michael will reach a point when he will want something. I’m guessing that he has a strong desire to want to go home on time today. I’m also guessing that if he doesn’t go home on time today, things are going to be very inconvenient for him. You see I listen to lunch time conversation and I am aware of the new game console that he just got this past weekend, and he really wants to play it as soon as he gets home. Getting home late will really put a damper on that plan, what a bummer. I can empathize with that. Now you have a mutual problem. You both have to stay after school in order to get what you need accomplished. Being the rationally detached adult, I realize this situation can be manipulated to my advantage and the student will hopefully learn something in the end. I’m accustomed to staying after school, it’s really not an inconvenience for me. But in order for an intervention like this to work I have to be able to make a connection. I need to convey some empathy here. I want to show that I’m put out, but that I’m more than willing to make the sacrifice for this noble cause. At least that is what I want him to believe. I want him to know I can and will stick it out as long as I need to. He has the choice to minimize the damage and you still get what you want in the end. Here some creative problem-solving and collaborating can lead you down the path of crisis resolution.

Recently I was working with a 4th grader in an E/BD classroom. We were working on an assignment on measurement. He did wonderful, not only did he learn the concept he was able to expand on it and relate information from his own life. This student is not known for being loquacious, so it was cause for celebration. Earlier he had shown me a lima bean seed he had germinated in wet paper towel. He was very excited that it had grown so much and even sprouted a single leaf. He was however a little disappointed that he could not plant his lima bean sprout since he did not have any dirt. What a coincidence, I live not even a mile from the school this child attends, and it just so happens that I had an open bag of potting soil at my house. Do you see where I am going with this? I asked the teacher if it was okay to fetch a small amount of potting soil for this student to plant his sprout. After all, he was maintaining on-task behaviors, displaying appropriate manners, had good self-control, was engaged in learning and completing assignments, all at once I might add. I asked him if he would like to have some dirt to plant his sprout with and he smiled one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen. Assuming that was a yes, I told him as soon as he asked, I would go and get some soil from my house. I pretended to anxiously wait by whistling and tapping my foot. After a few seconds he asked “Can you go get me some dirt to plant my seed while I do my work?” I responded with “Since you asked so nicely and have been doing all your work and have done such a good job working with me, ABSOLUTELY, thank you so much for asking!” (I have a tendency to be a little bit of a ham in the classroom. Try it, it works.) I immediately left and was back in 15 minutes with a large zip-lock bag full of potting soil. My only regret is that I did not get the chance to stay to see him plant that seed. But I did stop by the next morning to see it. He was very proud of it, as was I.

What did I learn from this, dirt is a good reinforcer? Well no, as much as I would like to think that, I wish it were that simple. Reinforcers do not have to be limited to praise or prizes. Sometimes activity reinforcers serve as extremely powerful reinforcers as much as any prize or praise. Sometimes the spontaneity and creativity of a reinforcer can have great value, especially when it appeals to a child’s interest at that moment. What I liked the most was that he was not going into a corner and zoning out for a few minutes for a break. This was an activity that not only peaked his interest, but allowed him to engage in learning while he was doing it. Obviously, I don’t plan to drop everything and run to my house or the store every time a student does something great or asks for a reward. But I have taught this student that rewards can be learning activities. Many times you already have the materials you need for activity reinforcers, if you take a look around your classroom. They can be cheap and often times require little effort to provide. You can provide them as individual as well as group activities. When it comes to activity reinforcement, find out what your students like, be creative, and be spontaneous.

Mindsets for Teachers of Children with Emotional and Behavior Disorders: #3 Have Hope, Give Hope

“I have hope, I can give hope to others.

When I first started teaching in a behavior classroom, I thought I had to make my classroom a virtual prison. It was designed to be a structured, organized, and efficient classroom, and I accomplished all those things. What it lacked was personality, warmth, and empathy. My students were successful, but they performed more because of what they would get in return and less because they really wanted to.

It is so easy in this day and age to simply use token systems and rewards as our sole basis for reinforcing behavior and performance. However, what we end up teaching children using this methodology is “If I do what you want, you are going to give me something I like”. That is okay in the beginning, in fact I often times start out using tangibles as reinforcers, but long term we want that student to learn to be intrinsically motivated. Remember, the student isn’t at that point yet, but that is where we want them to be. So even though I might give a tangible reward in the beginning, you better believe I’m piling on the social praise each and every time. Even a small success like being able to stand in line becomes a party at the Hard Rock. Eventually I’m making a bigger deal of the social praise than I am the tangible. I say things like, “Wow, you must be so proud of yourself!” or “I’m so proud of you, but who cares what I think, how you do you feel?” By doing this, I’m setting the stage for the student to make positive statements about himself. Even the most troubled child can’t help but feel good once he starts thinking and talking about himself in a positive light. It’s the beginnings of hope.

A teacher with the right mindset will build on this. It is time to go into Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator Scan mode. This teacher will seek every opportunity to catch the student doing more positive behaviors and “catch them in the act”.When we are distressed it’s easy to miss the positive things students do.  We feel “he never does anything right!” But a teacher with the right mindset will generate a laundry list of positive actions the student can talk about and refer to. Those students who previously had no reason to succeed will develop desire. Empowered by hope, they begin to feel better about themselves. Any tangible reward they might receive for doing well is nothing but a bonus, because in the end what they gained is greater than any prize they will ever earn.