Using Preference Assessments to Identify Student Reinforcers

Motivation is one of the key components needed to increase student engagement and learning and is essential to the successful implementation of instructional strategies such as discrete trial training, pivotal response training, and teaching functional routines. Many students with autism demonstrate fixed interests and limited play skills making it difficult for teachers and families to identify preferred toys and activities that can be used as reinforcers or rewards to increase motivation and teach new skills. Often times, what adults identify as reinforcers, are not necessarily reinforcing for our students and therefore do not increase student engagement and learning. Even when we are successful at identifying toys/activities that increase student engagement and learning, these items may have temporary effects. One strategy that can help teachers with this challenge is to complete ongoing student preference assessments.

A preference assessment is a systematic way of identifying preferred items that when provided immediately after a response, increase the frequency of future responses.  For example, during discrete trial training, if we provide a student with bubbles immediately after a correct response (e.g., “match bowl”) and the student continues to demonstrate the correct response for subsequent trials, then bubbles can be identified as a reinforcer for the response “match bowl.”

There are many types of preference assessments that have been used successfully to identify reinforcers. Two common preference assessments are the forced-choice stimulus preference assessment (Fisher, et al., 1992) and the brief or free-operant stimulus preference assessment (Roane, Vollmer, Ringdahl & Marcus, 1994). A forced-choice stimulus preference assessment involves presenting items in pairs and can only be used if students have the ability to make a choice between two items by reaching for, pointing to, or verbally stating which item they want. This assessment requires more time to complete and the duration of the assessment depends on the number of items you include in your assessment. Although more time consuming, this assessment has been identified in the literature as one of the most sensitive measures of preference. The free-operant stimulus preference assessment involves presenting an array of items simultaneously and can be completed in a brief duration of time (e.g., 5 minutes). Thus, this assessment can be completed more frequently and is preferred when time is limited. 

Steps to Completing a Brief Free-Operant Stimulus Preference Assessment:

  1. Place a variety of items on the table in front of the student. Choose items that provide different types of stimulation (e.g., visual, auditory, tactile). Items presented can include food or beverages, or use of visuals that represent social activities (e.g., tickles). You may want to limit the number of items (e.g., 5-10) as all items should be easy to view, reach, and manipulate by the student.
  2. Provide a quick demonstration of how each of the toys work and allow the student to briefly sample all items.
  3. Set a timer for 5-minutes and record the number of times the student picks up an individual item and how long they manipulate or play with that item. If the student puts down an item and picks up another item, record the new item and the duration of time the student manipulates or plays with that item. This process should be continued with each new item the student picks up until the 5-minute period is complete. (See example data sheet below).
  4. Identify the top 1-2 items that were manipulated the longest and include them in your next teaching session!

Given that student preferences vary and often change quickly, it is important to individually assess items that can be used as reinforcers during instruction. Completing frequent preference assessments can be an essential tool for teachers especially if students are making errors that are presumed motivational rather than skill deficits. Future newsletters will highlight additional types of preference assessments. Click the link below to get more information on the DT Essentials kit which includes a variety of common reinforcers!


Fisher, W. W., Piazza, C. C., Bowman, L. G., Hagopian, L.P., Owens, J. C., & Slevin, I. (1992). A comparison of two approaches for identifying reinforcers for persons with severe to profound disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 491-498.

Roane, H. S., Vollmer, T. R., Ringdahl, J. E., & Marcus, B. A. (1998). Evaluation of a brief stimulus preference assessment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 605-620.