Noncontingent Reinforcement: Examples, Pros and Cons

Noncontingent reinforcement examples and definition, explained below

Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) is a behavior management strategy that involves the delivery of a behavioral reinforcer, independent and regardless of the performance of a specific behavior.

It is contrasted to contingent reinforcement, where a reinforcer is contingent upon someone first performing the desired behavior.

A noncontingent reinforcer is often used in educational settings, but can be seen in everyday life as well.

In the classroom, the goal of NCR is to provide the student with a reward so that it is unnecessary for them to engage in the usual problem behavior.

NCR is a behavior modification strategy in applied behavioral analysis (ABA). Although it is often used to treat children with learning disabilities, it can be used with other students as well.   

However, this approach does not include teaching the student replacement behaviors. Therefore, it is advised to add an instructional component regarding constructive, alternative behaviors.

Noncontingent Reinforcement and Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA)

The key to NCR being effective is to know the reason the student is being disruptive. What function do their actions serve?

Sometimes a student misbehaves because they feel anxious about an assignment, so they look to the teacher for comfort. Because they may not have the social skills to ask for help, they seek help by being disruptive.

In other circumstances, the reason may be to get attention. For instance, a student may call-out answers to questions without raising their hand so the teacher will direct their attention towards them, which is very reinforcing to the child.

Generally speaking, a student’s disruptive behavior serves one of four functions:

  • To gain attention
  • To escape a task or activity
  • To gain access to a wanted object
  • To obtain or block sensory stimulation

To determine the behavior’s purpose, a team of professionals (teachers, school counselor, psychologist) will conduct a functional behavioral analysis (FBA).

In some cases, the teacher may need to perform this assessment on their own.

Gresham et al. (2001) define FBA as:

“…a collection of methods for gathering information about antecedents, behaviors, and consequences in order to determine the reason (function) of behavior” (p. 158). The chart below shows the different components of an FBA.

Functional behavioral assessment methods in a chart, reproduced as text in the appendix

When the function of the student’s problem behavior is identified, the teacher can apply NCR so the child does not need to engage the target behavior.

Or, if resources permit, the FBA team can devise an action plan to replace the disruptive behavior with one that is more constructive, called a replacement behavior.

Noncontingent Reinforcement Examples

  • Sitting Next to the Teacher: Letting a kindergarten student sit next to the teacher gives the child continuous attention, which eliminates their need to engage in disruptive behavior to gain attention.
  • Designated Time for Extra Attention: A teacher can make a point of setting aside a specific period of time to work with a student to give them the extra attention they usually seek by being disruptive.
  • Bedtime Story Reading: Every night before bedtime, a parent reads to their child for 10-15 minutes. This can help prevent challenging bedtime behaviors.
  • Movement Breaks: Giving a student that has difficulty maintaining their concentration a movement break every 20 minutes is reinforcing, but should occur regardless of their on-task or off-task behavior.
  • In Charge of Distributing Handouts: A primary school teacher recognizes one student’s need to feel important, so they allow them to distribute the handouts during each class.
  • Reducing Repetitive Speech: A student with autism often engages in repetitive speech (i.e., perseverative speech) to reduce their anxiety during certain types of lessons. So, the teacher makes a habit of periodically gently patting the child on the shoulder during those lessons.  
  • Applying Verbal Praise: After taking detailed notes, a teacher realizes that one student engages in disruptive behavior to gain attention about every 2 minutes. Therefore, the teacher offers the student verbal praise approximately every 90 seconds.  
  • In a Pediatric Dental Setting: A pre-set automatic cuing device informs dental assistants to implement noncontingent escape for their autistic patient every 3 minutes. This significantly reduces crying and body movements (escape behaviors) during dental treatments.
  • Peer Approval: The peer of a disruptive student delivers approval in the form of high-fives and fist-bumps at random intervals while working together on a class project.  
  • After-School Talk Time: A parent spends 10 minutes after getting home to let their energetic child talk about their day. This releases a lot of pent-up energy in the child and helps them relax.

Noncontingent Reinforcement Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Can decrease problem behaviors without directly addressing themMay not target the root cause of the behavior and produce a respondent conditioning effect
Easy to implement, as it doesn’t require complex strategiesMay not be sufficient for more severe or complex behaviors
Can be applied across various settings and behaviorsMay not generalize well if the problem behavior persists
Can improve the individual’s mood and overall well-beingMay lead to dependency on external rewards
Can help foster a positive environment and support motivationMay undermine intrinsic motivation if overused
Adaptable to the needs of different individualsMay not be equally effective for all individuals
Can be effective for managing behaviors in the short-termMay not lead to lasting changes in behavior

How Effective is Noncontingent Reinforcement?

There is a large body of research demonstrating the high effectiveness of NCR in the treatment of individuals with learning disabilities (Carr et al., 2009).

Delivering a reinforcer independent of behavior, the cornerstone of NCR, “results in a rapid and robust treatment effect” (p. 45).

According to Carr et al. (2009), there are numerous advantages to using NCR. For instance, NCR works with several function types (escape, attention, access), across numerous problem behaviors (self-injurious, aggression, elopement, bizarre speech), and can “bolster the efficacy of other treatments” (p. 46).

In addition, by examining the results of 59 studies, Carr and colleagues were able to assess the effectiveness of NCR according to stringent criteria as defined by The Task Force on the Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological Procedures (1995) of Division 12 of the American Psychological Association

The task force identified three categories of treatment effectiveness: well established, probably efficacious, and experimental.

The results revealed that one version of NCR “was deemed well established” (p. 51), and two other versions “were deemed probably efficacious” (p. 51).

How to Increase NCR Effectiveness  

When implementing an NCR treatment, there are several key elements that can increase the intervention’s effectiveness.

  • Ignore instances of the problem behavior: Since the problem behavior of students is often performed to gain teacher attention, reacting to disruptive behavior reinforces it.
  • Deliver reinforcement on time: Using the vibrating alarm on a cell phone will ensure the reinforcer is delivered at the correct time interval.
  • Increase length of interval gradually: After the student has exhibited a reduction in the problem behavior, increase the interval needed to receive the NCR.
  • Return to previous interval: If after lengthening the interval, the NCR is no longer effective, then return to the previous interval.
  • Ignore problem behavior at the end of an interval: If the problem behavior occurs at the end of the interval, ignore it for approximately one minute before delivering the NCR.

Case Studies of Noncontingent Reinforcement     

1. Schedule of Noncontingent Reinforcement

Even though reinforcement is noncontingent upon behavior, it can still be applied on a specific schedule. One of the most common schedules is the fixed interval (FI).

In an FI schedule, a specific period of time must elapse before reinforcement is delivered. For example, with an FI-5 schedule, reinforcement is delivered every 5 minutes.

Once the problem behavior has been identified, the teacher can collect data on how frequently the behavior occurs.

In the example given in the Tip Sheet, the teacher determined that the student engaged in the problem behavior 10 times during a 60-minute lesson; approximately every 6 minutes.

Therefore, the teacher set the alarm on her watch to vibrate every 5 minutes; then the reinforcer was applied.

After 4 weeks, the teacher charted a significant decline in the problem behavior, and so the reinforcement schedule was adjusted to FI-10.

This is called thinning the schedule and it helps the child become less dependent on reinforcement.

2. Food Selectivity and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Children with ASD have a high incidence of food selectivity (Schreck et al., 2004), which may lead to nutritional deficits Bachmeyer, 2009) and stress-filled mealtimes for family members (Curtin et al., 2015).

Luis et al. (2021) conducted a case study on a 4-year-old male named Sam who had been diagnosed with ASD.

Sam only consumed oranges, bananas, apples, a specific brand of bread, and cheese.

A baseline rate of non-preferred food acceptance was determined. During the treatment phase, Sam was presented with non-preferred foods and given continuous, noncontingent access to cartoon videos via a tablet.

Each of 21 sessions lasted for 10-minutes and consisted of 10 trials of non-preferred food presentation.

“During the first baseline, Sam engaged in high to moderate levels of aggression and zero levels of food acceptance. NCR resulted in a decrease in aggression to near‐zero levels and an increase in food acceptance to a mean of 63%, with some variability in the data” (p. 5).

As a result of the NCR intervention, Sam consumed 23 non-preferred foods, including: pancakes, pasta, chicken patties and ground beef.

3. NCR applied to Animal Training

Operant conditioning and various schedules of reinforcement is used frequently in animal training. Reinforcing specific animal behaviors has proven to be quite effective. However, less research has involved examining the effectiveness of NCR in shaping animal behavior.

Pfaller-Sadovsky et al. (2922) examined the effects of NCR on the behavior of 6 dogs. The target behavior was stepping on a rug that was placed in the researcher’s home living room.

Baseline and treatment behavior was assessed via the coding of video-recorded sessions.

An automatic food dispenser was set to deliver a small amount of food on a fixed-time schedule of 15 seconds (FT-15s).

“The results indicated that NCR was effective in reducing the target behaviour in three out of the six dogs” (p. 1).

The researchers suggest that NCR may not have been effective in three of the dogs because the reinforcement schedule was not dense enough.

Perhaps “a denser schedule (e.g., FT 7 s) might have produced a decrease in responding” for the other three dogs (p. 9).

Conclusion

Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) refers to delivering a reinforcer which is independent of a specific behavior. Unlike typical reinforcement practices that involve rewarding occurrences of specific behavior, there is no connection between the target behavior and NCR.

NCR is often used in classroom settings to address the attention-seeking behavior of students, which can be disruptive.

By delivering a reinforcer before the disruptive behavior occurs, there is no need for the student to be disruptive; their need for attention has already been met.

The effectiveness of NCR can be improved by ignoring problem behavior, using an alarm to ensure timely delivery, and gradually lengthening the interval of time for delivery of the NCR.

A large body of research has demonstrated that several versions of NCR are highly efficacious.

References

Bachmeyer, M. H. (2009). Treatment of selective and inadequate food intake in children: A review and practical guide. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2(1), 43–50. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391736

Britton, Lisa & Carr, James & Landaburu, Heidi & Romick, Kimberlee. (2002). The efficacy of noncontingent reinforcement as treatment for automatically reinforced stereotypy. Behavioral Interventions, 17, 93-103.

Carr, J. E., Severtson, J. M., & Lepper, T. L. (2009). Noncontingent reinforcement is an empirically supported treatment for problem behavior exhibited by individuals with developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30(1), 44-57.

Curtin, C., Hubbard, K., Anderson, S. E., Mick, E., Must, A., & Bandini, L. G. (2015). Food selectivity, mealtime behavior problems, spousal stress, and family food choices in children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Journal of
Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45
(10), 3308–3315. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803‐015‐2490‐x

Gresham, F., Watson, T., & Skinner, C. (2001). Functional behavioral assessment: Principles, procedures, and future directions. School Psychology Review, 30, 156-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/02796015.2001.12086106

Luis, J., Leon, Y., & Campos, C. (2021). Further evaluation of noncontingent reinforcement to treat mealtime problem behavior. Behavioral Interventions, 36(2), 514-521.

O’Callaghan, P. M. (2005). The efficacy of noncontingent escape for decreasing disruptive behavior during dental treatment. Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College.

Pfaller-Sadovsky, N., Hurtado-Parrado, C., & Arnott, G. (2022). The effects of noncontingent reinforcement on an arbitrary response in domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Behavioural Processes, 203, 104770.

Schreck, K. A., Williams, K., & Smith, A. F. (2004). A comparison of eating behaviors between children with and without autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(4), 433–438.

Task Force Promoting Dissemination of Psychological Procedures. (1995). Training in and dissemination of empirically-validated psychological treatments: Report and recommendations. Clinical Psychology, 48, 3–23.

Tucker, M., Sigafoos, J., & Bushell, H. (1998). Use of noncontingent reinforcement in the treatment of challenging behavior: A review and clinical guide. Behavior Modification, 22, 529-547.

Appendix: Graph Reproduced as Text

Functional Behavioral Assessment Methods:

1. Indirect methods
1.1 Behavioral checklists and school records
1.2 Interviews and surveys oft eachers and parents

2. Direct Methods
2.1 Descriptive naturalistic observation
2.2 ABC recording form

3. Experimental functional analysis
3.1 Identify and maipulate antecedent triggers
3.2 Identify and manipulate maintaining consequences

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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