Counting Out Items from a Set: A Fun Activity Using Natural Reinforcers


The picture shows a piece of paper with 4 rectangles drawn on it and the text "give me 4 dominoes."

I wanted to share a fun way that I practiced counting out items from a set with one of my students. But first, I’ll give a little bit of a background about natural reinforcers and why using them is such a powerful teaching strategy.

When working with children on communication, language, and academics, I like to make learning activities as much fun as possible.

To do this, I often use a child’s interests to teach and use natural reinforcers. A natural reinforcer is one that is directly related to the skill you’re wanting to teach (Mohammadzaheri, Koegel, Rezaee, & Rafiee, 2014).

Let’s break this down. While it has a more precise, scientific definition, we often think of a “reinforcer” as a reward. Examples of possible reinforcers/rewards include praise for getting a correct answer, giving a child a checkmark on a behavior chart, etc.

It is also a reinforcer if a child asks for a cracker and is given a cracker. The “reward” for the behavior of “asking for a cracker” is to receive a cracker. This is what it means for a natural reinforcer to be “directly related” to a skill. In this case, the communication skill of “asking” is rewarded by receiving what is asked for.

Other examples of natural reinforcers are:

  • A child makes the request, “open bag,” and the adult opens a bag of pretzels for the child.

  • If a child likes playing with cars, you could practice colors by having the child ask you for a “yellow car,” a “red car,” a “blue car,” etc. and getting to play with the cars after requesting.

Natural reinforcers are great to use because they make learning meaningful and relevant for a child, rather than just being a rote skill that the child performs in order to receive an unrelated reward (such as a checkmark on a behavior chart).

Note: I do use rewards like behavior charts with my students, but I try to use natural reinforcers whenever possible.

If you’d like to learn more about natural reinforcers, I would recommend joining the “Naturalistic ABA Facebook Group” and reading the book “The PRT Pocket Guide.”

Now, here’s the activity!

I have a student who likes watching dominoes fall (it is pretty awesome). I brought a set of dominoes with me one day to see if he would like them, and we had such fun playing with them. I then decided to use his interest in dominoes to teach the skill of counting out a certain number of items from a larger set of items.

The picture shows a piece of paper with 4 rectangles drawn on it and the text "give me 4 dominoes."

We were practicing having a large group of items (perhaps 20 blocks) and I would ask him to count out a certain number of them, such as saying “Give me 5 blocks” or “Get 3 blocks.” Often, students want to count all of the items, so this is a really good exercise not just for math concepts, but for listening skills as well.

I started teaching this skill by reading the student the instruction on written on the paper and having the visual prompt of the domino outlines. When I’m first teaching something, I want it to be very clear what I’m asking the child to do. We’ll talk about how I fade out this visual prompt later in this post.

The picture shows a piece of paper with 4 rectangles drawn on it and the text "give me 7 dominoes." Seven dominoes are placed on the rectangles (one in each rectangle).

I wanted to share where the natural reinforcer in this activity comes into play. After the child puts the correct number of dominoes on the paper, I put them in line (as shown in the picture below), so that they’re ready to knock over after we’ve added a bunch of dominoes to the line. So, the natural reinforcer for counting the dominoes is getting to put them in the line to push down after we get enough dominoes in the line.

Four dominoes in a line.

Here’s how I fade the visual prompt:

Once the student is successful with the domino outlines, I erase the outlines and put numbers on the paper instead. The student is usually still pretty successful with this, so it’s a subtle fading of the prompt.

A piece of paper with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 written on it, one place for each of 7 dominoes. The words, "give me 7 dominoes" are written on the paper.

A piece of paper with the numbers 1, 2 written on it, one place for each of 7 dominoes. The words, "give me 2 dominoes" are written on the paper.

So, once the student is successful with this, we want to fade the prompt a bit more. I’ll erase all of the numbers except the first and last to give the student a little more independence with the task. The student may need a little help/demonstration with this step at first.

A piece of paper with the numbers 1 and 4 written on it with space in between them, so that 4 dominoes would fit on the paper. The words written on the paper read, "get 4 dominoes." ""

Eventually, I’ll erase all of the numbers so that the student is completing the entire task independently. You might also want to (at some point) stop using the papers all together, so the child is just responding to your spoken instruction.

A piece of paper with these words written on it: "get 4 dominoes." The rest of the paper is blank.

I might do about 5 of these papers before I let the student push down the domino line, but you can adjust to more or fewer pages based on your student’s attention span.

As an overall note, I would usually read the instructions for each page to the student.

Reference

Mohammadzaheri, F., Koegel, L.K., Rezaee, M., & Rafiee, S. M. (2014). A randomized clinical trial comparison between pivotal response treatment (PRT) and structured applied behavior analysis (ABA) intervention for children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(11), 2769–2777. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2137-3


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