The Premack Principle in ABA Therapy: Explained

Photo of author


Posted On

The Premack principle is the idea that one event or input will always lead to another. This concept has been applied successfully in a variety of areas, including ABA therapy for children with autism and language acquisition. The application of this concept can be easy as it only requires understanding how children learn but also complex if compensatory learning techniques are needed to change behavior.

The “premack principle grandma’s rule” is a technique that has been used for decades. It helps children who are on the autism spectrum understand that one event does not have to happen before another.


The Premack principle was developed from B.F. Skinner’s work in behavioral psychology. Premack’s work demonstrated a relationship between two or more behaviors, while Skinner’s work concentrated on the link between a stimulus and an organism’s response to that stimulus as represented in behavior.

High-probability actions were those that were pleasurable or quickly rewarding, whereas low-probability behaviors were those that did not provide immediate reward. When a higher-probability conduct was connected to a lower-probability behavior as an incentive, the lower-probability behavior was more likely to be executed.

Because of how caretakers utilize it to educate youngsters, the Premack principle is also known as grandma’s rule. A youngster, for example, cannot have dessert until he or she has eaten their veggies.

Applied Behavioral Analysis & the Premack Principle

Autism is a developmental disease that may be detected early in life via abnormalities in behavior and learning. Children with autism stop learning language around the age of two, do not respond to their name, do not begin playing “pretend” games with dolls or other toys, have obsessive interests in one or two subjects, stop making eye contact, have unusual reactions to sounds or textures, and may begin self-stimulating behaviors such as rocking or spinning.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) treatment is the most common method for modifying behaviors associated with autism spectrum disease so that autistic children may grow up to be as self-sufficient and stable as possible. ABA therapy focuses on positive behavioral change by identifying problem behaviors, devising a treatment plan to stimulate behavior learning and adjustment, and maintaining records to track treatment successes and ensure that the person with autism benefits from the method.

Applying the Premack principle to specific behaviors is one technique to foster behavioral change via ABA treatment. This is a word derived from operant conditioning, which is the basis for many current behavioral treatment techniques.

The Premack principle essentially asserts that participating in more likely actions or activities may encourage engaging in less likely behaviors or activities. It’s a reinforcement concept, which means it may be used to teach adaptive behaviour by rewarding them with enjoyable activities.

Grandma’s rule or grandma’s law gets its name from its use with children, whether neurotypical or on the autistic spectrum. The youngster desires a delicious treat, but their grandmother insists that they first have their vegetables. The youngster is more likely to eat the broccoli if dessert is given as a reward.

The Premack Principle’s History

After Premack’s animal behavioral experiments, the Premack principle (or Premack’s concept) was published in 1965. Several research, including several with human volunteers, have confirmed the premise. For example, a 1980 research revealed that offering persons with developmental impairments the choice to play games, an ordinarily high-probability activity, as a reward for engaging in the lower-probability activity boosted their exercise participation.

Prior to Premack’s principle, behavioral models were almost entirely based on B.F. Skinner’s research, and organisms’ actions were thought to be dependant on a stimulus causing a behavior. The Premack principle said that there was a link between one behavior and another, not merely one stimulus and one behavior.

A hungry laboratory rat, for example, is more likely to eat than to push a lever in an experiment. When given the choice between food and pushing a lever, the rat will choose food over the lever since they are unlikely to press the lever anyhow. If, on the other hand, the rat’s preferred action of eating to avoid hunger becomes conditional on pushing the lever, the rat will learn to press the lever in order to get the reward of eating.

The Premack principle is often used by parents and caregivers to teach children particular habits, whether purposefully or unintentionally. In addition to grandma’s rule, caregivers may often inform their children that they must tidy their room before viewing a favorite television show.

How to Apply the Premack Principle in Therapy

As a technique of directing behavior, the Premack principle may be used in ABA treatment. Because the response to the kid’s request is eventually “yes, with caveats,” it may be an effective way of telling a child with autism “no” to specific behaviors.

If a youngster wants to play with a beloved toy but hasn’t finished their schoolwork, the parent might tell them that they must do their homework before playing. This enables the youngster to discover a way to get what they want.

Although this approach may seem to be similar to a token economy, there are significant differences. Working with your kid to discover what everyday duties they love is recommended by psychologists. If your kid does their schoolwork, for example, they not only get a reward, but they also get to do something enjoyable that they would do normally, such as giving the cat food. While rewarding a behavior is crucial and a key element of ABA treatment, using the Premack principle to generalize behavioral change may help with long-term adaptive behavior retention.

Instead of asking for something, a youngster with autism may seize it from the therapist. Because this is a maladaptive habit, the ABA therapist wants to educate the kid to ask for things instead of grabbing them.

One strategy is for the ABA therapist to reward the kid with a sticker in addition to the item once they request it. This might be the initial few phases of seeing the benefits of adaptive actions. The therapist, on the other hand, may offer the item to the kid after they have asked, so positively reinforcing the request. The therapist does not offer the object to the kid if the youngster does not ask or does not finish the statement.

Understanding the Premack Principle and How to Apply It to Your Child

It’s worth noting that the Premack principle works best when the high-frequency behaviors that are employed as incentives are unique to the kid. ABA therapists will spend time with their clients to determine what constitutes a meaningful reward and what does not. This, along with token economy-based incentives, is included into the treatment plan.

Working with a kid in this manner aids in the development of a rapport between the therapist and the child, or between the parent and the child. The youngster has some influence over what happens and is aware of the consequences of failing to accomplish a task.

The Premack principle is an essential part of behavioral therapy because it helps individuals comprehend how their actions are related in good and negative ways. It may be a crucial component of ABA treatment.


Autism Spectrum Disorder Signs and Symptoms (Autumn of 2019). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a U.S. government agency that (CDC).

The Premack Rule (2013). Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Encyclopedia

The Premack Rule. School Psychology Encyclopedia

The Premack Principle APA Psychology Dictionary

An Assessment of Three “No” Methods to Avoid an Escalating Response Class Hierarchy (2011). The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis is a publication dedicated to the study of human behavior.

The “premack principle research” is a principle that was first introduced by psychologist David Premack. The principle states that the learner will be more likely to learn if they have already mastered a certain skill.

Related Tags

  • the premack principle example
  • premack principle pdf
  • premack principle in the classroom
  • how to use the premack principle
  • premack principle example dog training

Related Content

Top 10 Best Toys for Autistic Children

The toys on this list is what we think are the best toys for the autistic children we have worked ...

Autism Statistics & Rates in 2023 (1 in 36 Children Identified with ASD)

Quick Findings: Copy the embed code below to share the graphic above: <a href=""><img src="" alt="ASD in the US"></a> Year ...

Is ABA Therapy Covered by Medicaid?

ABA therapy is a type of treatment that can help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is covered by ...