Preference assessments are evaluations that can be done through observations or trial-based to determine a hierarchy of items that a learner might prefer.



Conduct a preference assessment when you want to determine a hierarchy of items your learner enjoys or prefers. A Free Operant Preference Assessment is appropriate for all children, and are simple to do regularly in a classroom setting if an observation can be scheduled during a time when a child has the opportunity to choose from many different, possibly reinforcing, items or activities (e.g., free play). These are appropriate assessments for children who engage in challenging behavior when preferred toys are taken away, because items are never removed after selection or engagement.



  1. Gather a printed data sheet and a stopwatch or clock to track the duration of the student’s engagement with each item and set up your contrived environment or lead the student to the naturalistic environment. For example, you might bring a student into a resource room and tell them to play freely, or for a non-ambulatory student, you might set up a predetermined variety of items within their sight and reach.

  2. Observe the student unobtrusively, and record the following on your data sheet during each trial:

    1. Whether the student approaches an item (i.e., reaches out and takes it).

    2. Whether the student engages with the item. For engaging with toys, this might include pushing buttons on the toy, swinging the toy around, or otherwise manipulating the toy. Engagement does not necessarily have to be manipulating the toy as it was intended, but should not include problem behavior (e.g., throwing the toy, breaking the toy).

    3. The duration for which the student plays with the toy (i.e., the amount of time between the student’s approach and rejection of the toy).

    4.  You may also record the student’s engagement in other activities. For example, you might record the duration of time a student engages in stereotypy, dances to music, or moves into spaces without other children. We don’t typically think of these when we are brainstorming reinforcers, but if these are highly-preferred by the student, they may serve to reinforce target behaviors. For example, a student might get a break from teacher interaction or be allowed to engage in stereotypy contingent on responding.

  3. Continue recording approaches, engagement, and duration of engagement with each item until you have completed the predetermined observation time period.

  4. At the end of the session, record items that were within view and/or reach of the student that they did not approach. It will be useful for future trial-based Preference Assessments to identify items that may be low-preferred by the child.