Affirming Gender Atypical Reinforcer Choices and Preferences

By: Worner Leland
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

From birth, and even earlier, bodies are assigned a gender through a binary lens. Though this assignment is typically based on the body’s external primary sex characteristics, what we view as gender is shaped by one’s verbal community (Lorber & Moore, 2007). Reinforcers are idiosyncratic, but often, reinforcer choices perceived as atypical for a client’s perceived gender (whether actual gender, or assigned gender at birth) are punished – both negatively through the removal of access to an item or activity, or positively through verbal stigma, shame, or redirection to more “appropriate” stimuli or activities. For example, a boy who’s preferred activities include dress up in princess dresses, and who routinely chooses the sparkly, glittery option of any item, may be only given access to “boy” toys and color schemes in his environment, or may be given a rule that he can only buy clothes from the “boy” section of a store. Or a girl whose preferred activities are considered more aggressive may receive feedback like “Wouldn’t you rather I signed you up for a ballet class instead of football?” or “no one will want to play with you if you are always so muddy and covered in dirt.” Additionally, this practice disproportionately affects boys, with heavy stigmatization of play with feminine toys (Freeman, 2007). Choices that are atypical for a client’s perceived gender historically have even been deemed worthy of clinical behavioral intervention (Rekers & Lovaas, 1947; Rekers, 1977).

However, the American Psychological Association (APA) Ethical Guidelines specifies the core principle of respect for the client’s rights, self-determination, and dignity, including client’s gender and gender identity (APA Principle E), and notes the responsibility of the practitioner to protect the welfare and rights of the client, and to guard against of misuse of influence (APA Principle A). One way behavior analysis can work to ensure greater acceptance for a variety of gender-variant choices is to practice affirmation and acceptance of such choices made by clients, and to utilize a Behavioral Skills Training model (Ward-Horner & Strumey, 2012) to impact the behavior of those in the client’s environment. Through providing information, modeling, practice opportunities, and feedback, it may be possible to expand the repertoire of individuals what provide access to reinforcer choices, such as parents, teachers, staff, or direct service providers.


Behavior analysis can provide an instructional component of affirmation though the clear establishment of policies at the onset of a client relationship that may aid in creating a culture of acceptance. Rules and policies may range from nondiscrimination policies that also cover gender identity and expression, to stated rules about reinforcer access and choice, such as “all residents are free to dress themselves in any clothing they choose” or “any student may purchase any item they choose from the school store, if it is in their price range” or “clients are allowed to select from a wide variety of potential reinforcers to maximize reinforcing potential.”


Individuals with a long learning history of rigidity surrounding gender may have never had access to a model of how to provide gender acceptance or affirmation. Behavior analysts can model these sorts of interactions with clients by being cognizant of their own verbal behavior which client behavior occasions. A first step can include discontinuing potentially punishing gendered statements, whether explicit (“You can’t wear that. It’s a girls’ shirt.”) or implicit (“Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather have a doll? What about this tea set?”). Accepting and affirming verbal behavior can also be modeled, both through restating of policy (“You can pick whatever you like!”) or through affirming client feedback (for example “I like that color on you!” or “Cool choice!” or “That looks fun!”).

Practice Opportunities:

Gender and gender variance can be difficult topic to discuss with parents and service providers, due to either real or perceived cultural and societal stigma surrounding gender subverting choices. In such situations it may be tempting to avoid discomfort and remove practice opportunities by providing reinforcer choices that are gender neutral or which correspond with the assigned gender of the client. By removing the opportunity for a gender subverting choice to occur, however, removes the opportunity for parents, caregivers, or staff to respond to this behavior, and removes the opportunity for this behavior to be shaped in a way that is affirming. Continuing to provide a wide menu of reinforcers provides opportunities for staff to engage in affirming behavior, whether this means allowing a client to walk down both the “pink aisle” and “blue aisle” of a toy store, providing access to shopping in all departments of a clothing store, or proffering a choice between all the reinforcer options you have without assuming that any may be preferred based on client gender.


With the availability of practice opportunities comes the availability for interactions that function as feedback for those in the client’s environment. Potentially punishing gendered statements on the part of caregivers or staff can be gently countered with accepting and affirming verbal behavior (“It’s okay! They can pick whatever they like!” or “Everything here is for everybody!”), and affirmation can be provided for accepting verbal behavior on the part of caregivers or staff.

Through a clear policy of nondiscrimination procedures for client reinforcer choices, and through modeling, encouraging practice opportunities, and providing feedback, a culture of acceptance which maximizes reinforcement can be created for our clients.



American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from

Freeman, N. (2007). Preschoolers’ perceptions of gender appropriate toys and their parents’ beliefs about genderized behaviors: Miscommunication, mixed messages, or hidden truths? Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(5), 357–366.

Rekers, G. A. (January 01, 1977). Atypical gender development and psychosocial adjustment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 3, 559-571.

Rekers, G. A., & Lovaas, O. I. (January 01, 1974). Behavioral treatment of deviant sex role behaviors in a male child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 2, 173-90.

Ward-Horner, J. & Sturmey P. (2012) Component analysis of behavior skills training in functional analysis. Behavioral Interventions. 27, 75-92.


This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2016 SBRP SIG Newsletter.

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