What are Motivating Operations (MOs)?

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen

December 2, 2022

Motivating operations (MOs) are events that either encourage or prevent a certain behavior. An MO is essentially the desire that drives a specific action. 

MOs were first explained in the 1980s and have been influential in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA therapy is commonly used to treat children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with autism tend to have different motivations than neurotypical children. 

Understanding a child’s MO is important for teaching skills and learning communication. MOs can influence the effectiveness of any behavioral treatment. 

How to Identify Motivating Operations

A motivating operation is a variable that changes the value of a reinforcer. A reinforcer is anything that, when provided after a desired behavior, increases the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. 

If a child loves Skittles, they can be given after the child does a desired behavior to increase the likelihood they will do it again. If the child loves Skittles and hasn’t had one all day, the value of the reinforcer (a Skittle) has increased. In this case, the motivating operation is not having Skittles all day. 

It can be difficult to find the MO for children with autism since they may have different motivations from neurotypical children. For example, children with autism may not have the desire to please people. This means that a smile or verbal praise may not be enough of a reinforcer for a child with autism. 

Every child is different, and it may take some time to discover MOs that work. To find effective MOs, it is important to know the individual. You should note: 

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses    
  • Special interests
  • Which events or tasks cause frustration or anxiety

What Are the Two Types of Motivating Operations?

There are two types of MOs based on whether the reinforcer increases or decreases the likelihood of a specific behavior. 

Establishing Operations

Establishing operations (EOs) increase the effectiveness of a reinforcer. 

An example of an EO is not giving the child who loves Skittles any candy before an important event. The effectiveness of the Skittles is increased because the child has not had any candy all day. 

Abolishing Operations

Abolishing operations (AOs) decrease the effectiveness of a reinforcer. 

An example of an AO is constantly rewarding a child with Skittles. If the child is frequently given Skittles after a behavior, they may not feel motivated to continue with behaviors that provide access to Skittles. In this case, Skittles as a reinforcer has lost value and the likelihood that providing Skittles will change the child’s behavior is decreased.

What Is the Effect of Motivating Operations?

MO refers to what happens before an event or behavior that might change the value of a reinforcer. Effective MOs will either increase or decrease the value of the reinforcer to make a specific behavior more or less likely. 

An MO can be unconditioned or conditioned. An unconditioned MO has not been taught but can motivate behavior. An example of an unconditioned MO is hunger. You do not need to be taught that being hungry makes you motivated to eat a meal. When you are hungry, the value of a food reinforcer is increased. 

Conditioned MOs are learned. An example is the time on the clock making you hungry. If you look at the clock and see that it is lunchtime, the value of your food increases. There are different types of conditioned MOs.

How Are Motivating Operations Used in ABA Therapy?

MOs are used to understand how children with autism respond to reinforcement and how it can be used to change interfering behaviors and introduce new ones.

ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors. Finding the right motivation for your child is an important part of ABA therapy. 

In fact, motivation is one of the four pivotal areas of pivotal response training (PRT) that is commonly used in ABA therapy. Reinforcers are also used in discrete trial teaching (DTT), which teaches new behaviors in a structured way through repetition. 

An ABA therapist looks at the “A-B-Cs” of behavior. 

  • A stands for antecedent. This is what happens right before a behavior. 
  • B stands for behavior. This is an action, verbal response, or lack of response that happens in response to the antecedent.
  • C stands for consequence. This is what comes after the behavior.

An ABA therapist may use a reinforcer as a consequence to increase the likelihood or frequency of a specific behavior. 

Here are a few examples of how MOs can be used in ABA:

  • Giving a child access to as many of their favorite drinks as they want to increase the likelihood they will need to use the bathroom while potty training
  • Waiting until a child is playing with their favorite red toy car to teach them about colors
  • Playing outside to increase the likelihood they will be tired and sit down for a lesson
  • Work on skills related to eating (like how to hold a fork) only around meal time so the child is hungry and motivated to learn the new skill to get food


Motivating operations can encourage or prevent different behaviors. It is important to understand the unique motivations of each individual to use MOs effectively. An ABA therapist can help to discover your child’s MO for more effective therapy. 

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