Talk the Talk: Schedules of Reinforcement

Talk the Talk: Schedules of Reinforcement

Hello everyone! Today is the first of a series all about schedules of reinforcement. We will break this topic into a few parts: An introduction to schedules of reinforcement, ratio schedules of reinforcement, and lastly, interval schedules of reinforcement. We’ll be covering an introduction to schedules of reinforcement today, so stay tuned for details on ratio and interval schedules in upcoming posts!

A schedule of reinforcement is a “rule specifying the environmental arrangements and response requirements for reinforcement,” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2019, p. 799). 

To put it simply: A schedule of reinforcement is a rule that states when and how often reinforcement is given after a target behavior. 

There are two overarching categories for types of reinforcement schedules: continuous and intermittent. With a continuous schedule of reinforcement, every single instance of the target behavior is met with reinforcement. 

This is a great schedule to use when a behavior is first being introduced. However, this is not the schedule we will use long term. It can be very difficult to reinforce every single instance of a behavior. Second, it’s not often a naturally occurring schedule of reinforcement. And even more that, behaviors that have been reinforced on a continuous schedule are not very resistant to extinction. Thus, once a response is taught, we need to move to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement.  

With an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, only some of the occurrences of the target behavior are met with reinforcement. Intermittent schedules are most often used to help a learned behavior maintain over time and to make it more resistant to extinction. 

As you can see in the examples above, continuous schedules of reinforcement will always remain the same. 100% of the learner’s responses will contact reinforcement. 

Intermittent schedules, on the other hand, will vary depending on how frequently the learner’s responses will contact reinforcement. These schedules are broken down in to two subcategories: Ratio schedules and interval schedules.  


Ratio Schedules of Reinforcement 

A ratio schedule is based upon the number of responses the learner must engage in to contact reinforcement. 


    • – For every 5 pages you read in your textbook, you get a 5-minute break to scroll on your phone. 
    • – Matt gets a sticker on his chart every 2 times he uses the toilet rather than having an accident.
    • – Sarah receives a piece of a puzzle for each question she answers correctly. 


Interval Schedules of Reinforcement 

An interval schedule is based upon the amount of time that has passed since the learner last contacted reinforcement. Once the target duration has elapsed, the next instance of the target behavior results in reinforcement. 


    • – Ravi is working on raising his hand in class. His teacher sets a timer for 5 minutes. Any time Ravi raises his hand during those 5 minutes, he does not contact reinforcement (being called on). Once the 5 minutes has elapsed, the next time Ravi raises his hand, the teacher provides reinforcement by calling on him. After this, she resets the timer for the next 5 minutes. 
    • – When Paul is fishing, he catches a fish an average of once every 10 minutes. After approximately 10 minutes have gone by, he casts his line again and catches a fish. It will now be another approximately 10 minutes before casting his line catches him a fish. 
    • – Danica is dating a new guy and is anxiously awaiting a text from him. He texts her only once every 3 hours while he’s at work. It doesn’t matter how many times she checks her phone during those 3 hours, she will only contact reinforcement the first time she checks her phone after the 3 hours have elapsed. 


Keep an eye out for these schedules within your daily life. What types of schedules are shaping your behavior? What is the most common schedule you’re finding? Are there any schedules you’d like to change? 

Stay tuned for our next post about schedules of reinforcement where we take a deeper dive into ratio schedules.  

 Want to learn about more ABA terms? Check out our other Talk the Talk posts here! 

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APA Citation: Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.