Preference Assessment in Special Ed – 5 Things To Know

Preference Assessment (or Reinforcement Inventories) are very important. What are they? Why are they important? Who contributes? When and how do I assess and record? For the answers to these questions and more read on.

(1) What is a Preference Assessment?

It is an assessment of preferred tasks, games, foods, drinks, songs, toys, sensory objects, You Tube clips, people and more. The preferred items are ranked in some way from least-to-most preferred. Words to label categories such as non-preferred, like, prefer, highly preferred could be used or you could use numbers. As long as the whole team are aware of what label or number represents which category, that is all that counts.

Picture of a boys arm and hand scooping beads. There is a picture of a bowl with more beads in. Caption reads 5 Things to know about preference assessment in Special Education.
Student playing with
a preferred item

They can be a list of items and a tick and flick chart or the headers can be written quickly on to card and items listed under each category that they fit. If you choose the later for convenience it will be important to type/update each record in the students file digitally as soon as able. Accidents (and behaviour) do happen in classrooms and we wouldn’t want to lose the knowledge gained.

(2) Why is a Preference Assessment important?

Knowing what a student will work for helps teachers to plan engaging learning. It provides rewards that will aid in the likelihood of the student repeating a positive behaviour. We need preference assessments to

  • know what a student will work for;
  • communicate for;
  • make choices to engage in outside or inside play
  • for the student to learn how to share and take turns;
  • in order to participate in group learning;
  • transition calmly;
  • increase positive actions;
  • decrease potential negative behaviour
  • keep them and others safe
schedule left half green and says 'first' along with a picture of a stick figure sitting at a desk. The right side is yellow and says 'then'. It has a picture of a slide and swing on it.
First Then Schedule showing ‘work’ then ‘playground’ as the preference of a student

(3) Who contributes to a preference assessment?

First of all, anyone can participate in undertaking a preference assessment. I work in a Special School in a self-contained class. I don’t have a specified person who does them. If you are in a district or school where a specific therapist does these then be guided by your regulations however, an understanding of what is required during the assessment is important as you will be supporting the therapist to gather evidence for the document.

It’s all ok. You can do it.  I invite the whole team to participate. I usually start by sitting with my teacher aides in the classroom and we brainstorm together what we have noticed the student being drawn to and which items they strongly object too.  All therapists involved in the education of the student contribute. The carers are asked to complete their own one for the home setting. There may be some cross over that we can use from the lower end of the preferences. We do NOT use the Highly Preferred items from the home setting if possible as if we overuse some items, they will reach their satiation point and lose their value to the student. Carers may need to have these items available for safety.

(4) When should we complete them?

  • During transition meetings/visits;
  • Beginning of the school year;
  • Each Semester or Term update;
  • as new interests are discovered.

In order to be on the list we are looking for consistent preference being shown or consistent non-preferred indications.

(5) How do I complete a Preference Assessment?

As previously indicated brainstorming with the entire team is the beginning. Noticing what students are consistently selecting. Of course, not all our students are easy to observe as they are still learning how to make a choice; have multiple impairment or have very minimal interests to select from. Next, take your best guess of some items to present based on the information gained.

The Three most common type of preference assessments:

Multiple Stimulus Without Replacement. 5 – 7 items presented as a group

  • Include sensory items/toys or puzzles – what is the first item the student reaches for; let them play with it for a very short time – note it and remove it; re-present the remaining items. What does the student go for next – note it and remove it. Sometimes it may be helpful to photograph these items, so all the team know exactly what you are talking about or if you have the means to keep these aside for one child keep the items in a separate container easily accessible for learning opportunities. Re-present the same items over several days looking for consistency of the preferences. HINT: not all preferences are tangible (touchable items). It could be people (adults/peers); physical movement (jumping/walking/scooting) or having the option to NOT do an activity. Further Reading: a paper demonstrating how to complete a preference assessment using Multiple Stimulus with Replacement on a higher functioning student here.
Completed example of Multiple Stimulus No Replacement Preference Assessment for 7 toys along with instructions on how to use

Paired: Present two items at a time noting a-b position

  • A slower way of sorting but may be important particularly for students who are easily overwhelmed and find it challenging to make a selection or who have visual or multiple impairments. Put out two items – one on the left (a) and one on the right (b). Keep the item the student chooses and put aside the other item. Present the chosen item again and pair with a different item. Switch which side the item is placed. Keep going until item 1 has been paired with every other item. Put item 1 aside and complete the process again with item 2 and pair item 2 with each other item. Keep presenting along with each of the items noting how many times each item is selected. Rank in order.
Paired Choice Preference Assessment completed example

Free Operant: Present a group of items during free play

  • Assess what the student looks at/moves toward/plays with/ or ignores. Time how long they play with items. Document.
Free Operant Preference Assessment - example of an empty assessment document.

Other Factors to consider for the process

  • Know your students. What does it look like when they are making a preferred choice: A flick of the eyes to the left? Does the head drop? Is there a movement of the fingers/hands/feet? Do they vocalise or stop vocalising? Are they staring at the item? Do they attend for a longer period of time to the item? Make sure this information is as clear as can be to all members of the team, so everyone knows a positive indicator.
  • Assess at a quiet time with minimal distractors to allow the student to participate
  • Allow time – this may not be a quick process
  • Observe and document during free play as well as group and structured times. Choose one or two students as a focus or allocate one support assistant to one or two students each and ask them to focus on them during these times. Note preferences and discuss as a team at a later date.
  • Do the assessment over several days or a couple of weeks. The time doing these assessments is time well spent

When should they be updated?

Preference Assessments are a working document. They will be updated throughout the entire school year as preferences change. For some of our students with Autism they can change every few days. It is therefore best to keep the documentation in central designated place so all the team can access. Don’t forget to check in with home and see what different preferences they have noted.

I hope this has helped you to gain some ideas on preference assessments. For further reading here is an article on training staff to operate the assessments. I have some free ‘ I am working for’ and ‘First/Then’ schedules here if you would like some of these after you have completed your assessments.

You are busy. I hear you but, this is one of those key assessments that will move forward the education of your student. Yes it takes time but it will be so valuable in the end. You will be pleased you did it. I promise you.

I have a PDF to get you started that includes blank versions of the above Preference Assessments and the completed example ones. You can download them for free to get you going. Enter your email below to sign up for the newsletter and grab yours from the subscriber resource library.

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Aroha, Ann

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