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Is all Attention Really the Same?

By Tiahla Nover
June 18, 2021
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Today, I wanted to highlight an article I read in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis that was published earlier this year by Harper and associates. The three studies in the article take a deeper look into three different types of attention (praise, physical interaction, and conversation) provided to preschool children as a reinforcer and how reinforcing each type of attention actually was. 

The study:

In the article, they conducted preference, reinforcer, and progressive-ratio (PR) reinforcer schedule assessments to determine which types of attention the children in their study preferred and if it matched with the type of attention that was the strongest reinforcer. The results showed that the participants of the first study preferred conversation (13 of 31) or physical interaction (13 of 31) the most. Two of the participants preferred praise and the remainder preferred a combination of conversation and physical interaction or all three types of attention. The conversation was suggested to be the more potent reinforcer in the study's second experiment with conversation functioning as a reinforcer for 16 of 17 participants.

The study also looked at if preference assessments were a valid way of finding the most effective form of attention to use as a reinforcer. When comparing the first two studies, Harper and associates found at least a partial match between the preference assessment and the reinforcer assessment for 14 out of 17 participants, indicating that preference assessments were good predictors for selecting the type of attention that would function as a reinforcer. In the studies third experiment, 7 of 10 participants showed at least a partial match between their preference assessment and the PR schedule assessment. The study noted that during the PR schedule assessment that “low and sometimes decreasing levels of responding occurred in the PR schedule. Overall, these data suggest attention may not be a potent reinforcer, particularly if the schedule requirements are rapidly increased. However, it is possible that had we increased the schedule more slowly or used a PR schedule that was increased across sessions, we may have observed different results.”

My takeaway thoughts:

I often hear the phrase “all attention is attention” when referring to the maintaining function of challenging behavior. While I think that’s a great approach to take when developing a plan for decreasing unsafe and challenging behaviors, I think it’s important that we go deeper when selecting what types of attention to provide as a reinforcer for increasing functional behaviors. We should also consider if attention is the best way to increase or maintain these functional behaviors altogether.

I also have often seen visuals for things like “101 Different Ways to Praise” which is a great way to vary the types of praise staff are using. But we can also start encouraging our staff to think outside the praise box altogether. We can encourage more variety in the types of attention we provide. We can have staff be more intentional about completing preference assessments for the different types of attention we offer just like preference assessments for the type of toys/activities we offer. If we want to make the most progress, it’s important that we find the strongest reinforcer for the children we are working with.

Harper, A.M., Dozier, C.L., Briggs, A.M., de Villegas, S.D., Ackerlund Brandt, J.A. and Jowett Hirst, E.S. (2021), Preference for and reinforcing efficacy of different types of attention in preschool children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 

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