Last week, we looked at the patterns of reinforcement and discussed the experiment that proposed intermittent reinforcement as a better means of resistance to extinction than is continuous reinforcement. This week, we will focus on the specific characteristic of the reinforcement and examine an experiment that takes advantage of embedded reinforcement. Before explaining what is meant by embedded reinforcement, I must first make Hanley, Tiger, and Ingvarsson’s experiment familiar to you.
Haley et al. focus on free-play periods in the pre-school setting. Free-play periods are characterized by “children initiated engagement [and] provide children with opportunities to choose from a variety of simultaneously available activities that are presumably consistent with their interests and abilities” (Hanley et al. 33). This type of free-play is commonly seen as an opportunity to develop social and academic skills. The experiment of Hanley et al. emerges from the finding that “selection and engagement of materials in instructional, literacy, and science zones [are] consistently low compared to [that] in dramatic play, computers, blocks, manipulatives, games and art activities” (Hanley et al. 33). Therefore, Hanley et al. propose two strategies to promote the selection of these less preferred activities:
1) Satiation: By providing prolonged access to the preferred activities and keeping these activities constant (lacking any type of novelty), participation in these activities should decrease due to satiation or habituation.
2) Embedded reinforcement: By adding attracting qualities to the locations of the less preferred activities, subjects will be lured to those activity zones and subsequently engage in those activities.
In the experimental set up, there were nine zones the children could choose to play in.
- Dramatic play: Pretend play toys (e.g., dress-up clothes, doctor set, flower shop, barber shop)
- Computer: Two computers with a variety of CD-ROM games (e.g., Clifford’s Counting, Jumpstart Kindergarten)
- Blocks: Toys to occasion large motor movement (e.g., train sets, large blocks, bowling set, basketball)
- Manipulatives: Small toys on table tops to occasion small motor movement (e.g., building blocks, animals, tinker toys, Lincoln Logs)
- Games: Age-appropriate board games and large puzzles (e.g., Candyland, Memory, dominos)
- Art: Open-ended art activities on table top (e.g., paint, crayons, Play-Doh)
- Science: An open-ended activity for children to explore and use their senses (e.g., digging for dinosaurs in sand; pouring water through sieves)
- Instructional zone: One-on-one direct instruction. Each child has individualized skills and relevant materials selected and stored in the area
- Library: A variety of age-appropriate books
The last three zones are the zones that are initially least preferred during baseline. During baseline, dramatic play, blocks, art, games, manipulatives, and science materials are rotated daily. Because of the large number of books in the library and the individualized nature of the instructional zone, the materials in these activities are rotated weekly. A wide variety of computer games are located by the computer; therefore, these materials do not rotate (Hanley et al. 35). In the satiation phase, the materials in all zones other than the science, instructional zone, and library zone are kept constant. In the embedded reinforcement phase, the following zones change:
Instructional zone: the chairs and cubbies of the instructional zone are redecorated with popular children’s cartoon characters; when possible, a teacher sits in the instructional zone prior to children selecting the instructional zone; small trinkets are placed intermittently in each child’s bin of individualized instructional materials, which are available to children who select and sit in the instructional zone (Hanley, et al. 37).
Library area: the table and chairs are replaced with four plush pillows and a carpet in the library; a book of the week is selected and displayed with thematically related toys; when possible, a teacher sat in the library prior to children selecting the area (Hanley, et al. 37).
Science: Science-related activities that are thought to provide more reinforcement are arranged in the science area. To increase the likelihood that children will select the science area, teachers present each new science activity during group instruction the day prior to its inclusion in the science area (Hanley, et al. 37).
Hanley et al. conduct the experiment by first holding the baseline phase, then holding the satiation phase, baseline phase, and finally the embedded reinforcement phase. The results seem to indicate that an embedded reinforcement type of procedure produces more success overall. After the satiation phase, there is a slow decline in allocation to dramatic play and blocks but no significant change in any of the other zones (other than the three of interest: instructional, science and library). The instructional and science zones feel the indirect effects such that there is an increase in preference for those; however, there was no change for the library zone. After the embedded reinforcement phase, there is an immediate increase in attendance all three zones of particular interest, the library, science and instructional zones. In addition, these effects are sustained and present during the follow up testings.
These results are interesting yet, I question whether the seemingly success of the embedded reinforcement is due to the fact that satiation occurs prior. Maybe it is not just the embedded reinforcement that is causing the desired results. Maybe there is an effect of both together (as long as they are in near temporal vicinity to each other) that causes the increase in the instructional, library, and science zones. It could be that the reason why we interpret it to be due to the embedded reinforcement is merely because embedded reinforcement was the second strategy performed. To solve for this, further research can switch the order such that the embedded reinforcement is before the satiation. If the same effect is found such that the embedded reinforcement causes stronger, more sustaining results, then it is in actuality due to embedded reinforcement. The two strategies could also be tested separately using a between subject design. All could be combined to see if the effects are due to one or the other, or to see if combining the two creates even better results.
Another thing to discuss is this method of embedded reinforcement. To my understanding, I interpret from Hanley et al. article that this type of reinforcement is just to attract the children over to the library, instructional, and science zones. The children do not necessarily have to partake in the activities to be rewarded. Therefore, this method depends on the probability that if they are in those zones, they will interact with the respective activities because they are nearby. The embedded reinforcers are there just to call over the children and get them to pay more attention to the zones they would normally prefer less. They are not rewarded for taking part in those zones; they are rewarded for being in those zones. The experiment of Hanley et al. show that apparently, this is successful. It could be then suggested that reinforcement is a very powerful tool since, even though the reinforcement is not directly on the behavior of interest, it still produces the desired, indirect effects on that behavior.
Hanley, G. P., Tiger, J. H., & Ingvarsson, E. T. (2009) Influencing preschoolers’ free-play activity preferences: an evaluation of satiation and embedded reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42(1), 33-41.