Thank you for your question TQ. I should preface my response with letting you know I’m not going to answer with anything you should try to do differently. As a behaviour analyst, I would need to engage in a functional behaviour assessment before I can make suggestions. What I can offer are some thoughts or questions to consider in your own attempt to understand what might be going on. This information may then inform your decision making.
Through data and observation, I would try to understand the function of the behaviour targeted for intervention. In this case, it is asking, “Why does your son wander off?”, “What does he get out of it?” A few functions are possible. He may be wandering off and gains access to other, novel stimuli. You eluded to the possibility that he sees something of interest and goes towards it. He may wander off to escape the current environment. It might be too busy, loud, boring, or involve non-preferred task demands? Another possibility might be the attention and/or chase game he gets from going missing and then being found again. Once the function has been identified reinforcement can be planned for while teaching alternative behaviours that will also get his needs/wants met. You can gain such valuable information by keeping detailed records of the times he wandered off - including what was happening before and after. It’s also to gather information on the days where he did not wander - what was different about those times? Once you have this information, you might notice a couple of trends or commonalities in your tracking which may suggest areas to intervene.
When people tell me their reinforcement/reward/punishment plans are not working, I tend to ask questions surrounding the rate, quality and delay of reinforcement.
1) Rate of reinforcement. You did not mention how often you reinforce good walking. How often and when you deliver the reinforcement is just as important as the selecting the reinforcer. Ideally, you want to deliver reinforcement before he’s likely to wonder. You can determine this time by calculating the average time between the onset of the outing and the time he wandered away and aiming for a delivery time just below this time. Rate of reinforcement may also have to be adjusted depending on your son’s motivation (e.g., during non-preferred outings or in places that are highly stimulating, reinforcement may need to be provided more often).
2) Quality of reinforcement: Want to ensure that what you are offering is indeed a reinforcer (i.e., good walking increases) and can compete with other sources of reinforcement. It may be that whatever is interesting to your son cannot compete with what you have to offer. In this case, we might make access to the novel, desired things contingent on good walking. It may also be the case where your son has had recent or free access to the preferred item designated as the reinforcer. This changes the value of the reinforcer where he may not be motivated at that moment for it.
3) Delay of reinforcement: Some children are okay with delaying reinforcement (e.g., when we get home, you’ll get xxxx) and other children are not; particularly children with ADD. If there are delays in reinforcement this is often enough time to engage in undesirable behaviour which gets reinforced sooner (i.e, because of one of the functions I mentioned above). Smaller reinforcers and/or token may be necessary as “in the meantime” reinforcement if the preferred item cannot be delivered while on your outing. This then involves the rate of reinforcement which I discussed above (e.g., How often to give tokens? How many?)
I’m sorry I could not be more specific in my reply. I recommend being in touch with a behaviour analyst who can meet with you and your son, help gather the necessary information, analyze the data and make informed decisions. I’ve offered a number of possible reasons why the current reinforcement plan is not working. A behaviour analyst will be able to work with you to sort out which ones are likely involved and how to make adjustments. I think you’re on the right track when it comes to reinforcing “good walking” but there might also be another behaviour/skill to be taught and subsequently reinforced. You did not mention where your were located. If you’re comfortable sending me another message with your state/province/county, I can send you information on your local professional association for behaviour analysis. My reply to you will be in private.
Thanks again and take care,