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Natural Reinforcer Activity: Count Out Items from a Set by Building a Tower

An image of a pegboard with a tower built in the middle.

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 sticker 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.

This is opposed to an "arbitrary" reinforcer, such as being given a cracker as a reward for correctly solving a math problem. While this may still be an effective reward, receiving a cracker isn't naturally related to solving a math problem, so it's not a natural reinforcer.

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 sticker 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!

This student enjoys building a tall tower and knocking it down (because that's awesome!), so I used building a tower as a natural reinforcer for counting out certain numbers of blocks. The goal for the student is to count a smaller number of objects from a larger group of objects. For example, if you have a pile of 20 blocks and you ask the student to get 5 blocks. The tricky part of this for some students is that they want to count all 20 of the blocks (which makes sense), so they have to listen carefully for how many to count.

Step 1:

A toy pegboard from Discovery Toys. The pegs are in a bag that the teacher holds. There is a small piece of paper with the number "4" written on it in front of one of the holes on the pegboard.

I start by saying, "Let's build a tower! Look how many we need first."

I put the number "4" (or any number) in front of one space on the pegboard. I point to it and say, "How many?" When the student says, "four," I say, "Yes, we need 4!"

I then hold out the bag of pegs and say, "Count 4." I make sure that the student takes one at a time and counts them as he puts them in the space behind the "4."

This sometimes requires some prompting. I'll put some links about how to prompt at the end of this post.

If a student is having trouble with this, you could demonstrate it for the student first and/or make a video of you demonstrating it (video modeling).

Step 2:

Student puts the four pegs on the board behind the "4."

The same peg board, now with a stack of 4 pegs on one side of the board.

Step 3:

The teacher moves the stack of 4 to the middle of the board (where the tower will be built). This represents the natural reinforcer because each time we add pegs to the middle stack, the tower get taller. Since it might not be as clear of a reward, I also praise by saying "Good job counting 4!" and giving the child a token on a token economy board (if that's something they usually use).

The teacher then places a new number card in front of the student. Then, repeat step one for this number.

The same peg board with the stack of 4 pegs moved to the middle. A new piece of paper has been placed at the edge of the board. The piece of paper has a numeral 2 written on it.

Step 4:

The student has placed two pegs behind the "2" label (with prompting as needed).

Step 5:

The teacher moves the two pegs onto the stack in the middle, so the tower gets taller. The teacher then puts a new number in front of the student and goes back to step 1 again.

Step 6:

Once you think that the tower is tall enough, you can let the student knock it down. If the student knocks it down early, I don't worry too much about can just start building another one.

A pebboard with a tall tower in the middle space.

How to Prompt

Prompts and prompt fading are some of the most common teaching approaches that I use, so these blog posts are definitely worth the read! I also always recommend getting training on these skills from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®).

How to Use Prompts Effectively and Efficiently: Procedures for Prompt Fading:


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.

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