Understanding Differential Reinforcement in ABA

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The differential reinforcement is a behavioural approach to teaching that relies on various kinds of positive reinforcement to shape behaviour. We probably use these strategies on a daily basis but let’s dive more into it so we can continue to differentially reinforce our kids as much as we can!

What is Differential Reinforcement?

Differential Reinforcement is a behavioural strategy used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy that involves reinforcing a specific behaviour while ignoring or not reinforcing other behaviours. This gives the strategy an obvious discriminating component to ensure we are encouraging more of the desired behaviour rather other behaviours that are occurring around the same time.

The goal is to encourage the occurrence of the desired behaviour and reduce or eliminate the undesired one. This method is often used for children with autism and other developmental disorders to help them learn new skills or modify their behaviour. The ‘differential’ part refers to the difference in response towards different behaviours: reinforcing the appropriate behaviour and not reinforcing (or even providing a different consequence for) the inappropriate behaviour. Differential Reinforcement can be highly effective when tailored to the individual’s unique needs and behaviours.

The Four Types of Differential Reinforcement

In Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), differential reinforcement is categorized into four main types: Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO), Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI), Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA), and Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL).

  • Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO): Focuses on rewarding the individual when a specified undesired behaviour is not exhibited within a certain time frame. For example, if a child has a habit of shouting out in class, the teacher might start a DRO schedule. The teacher could set a timer for a specific interval (say, 5 minutes) and if the child does absolutely anything other than shouting , the child could receive a reward such as praise, a sticker, or extra free time.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI): Involves reinforcing a behaviour that is physically impossible to occur simultaneously with the undesirable behaviour. For instance, if a child has a habit of biting their nails, a DRI strategy could be to give the child a stress ball to squeeze whenever they feel the urge to bite their nails. In this case, squeezing the stress ball is physically incompatible with nail-biting – they can’t do both at the same time.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA): Focuses on the reinforcement of an alternative but appropriate behaviour that fulfills the same function as the unwanted behaviour. Let’s consider a child who tends to scream when they want attention. In a DRA strategy, you could teach the child to ask for attention in a polite and quiet manner, such as saying “Excuse me, can I talk to you?” or raising their hand instead.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL): Geared towards reinforcing the desired behavior when it occurs at a lower frequency. For example, if a child is asking for a snack excessively throughout the day, a DRL strategy might involve setting a limit to how often they can ask for a snack. The child would then be reinforced if they ask for a snack less than or equal to the predetermined limit, like three times a day.

How Does Differential Reinforcement Work in ABA?

Differential Reinforcement works as a key strategy in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) by utilizing positive reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviours while reducing or eliminating unwanted behaviours. This approach operates on the understanding that behaviour is often a function of its consequences.

In differential reinforcement, specific behaviours are either reinforced or ignored based on a set of pre-determined criteria. The four types of differential reinforcement strategies – DRA (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior), DRI (Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior), DRO (Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior), and DRL (Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior) – each have distinct goals and applications but work under the same principle.

The effectiveness of this strategy rests on consistency, clear identification of behaviours, and appropriate selection of and ability to earn reinforcers. This ensures the individual understands the relationship between their behaviour and the resulting consequences, hence promoting change in behaviour over time.

The Role of Differential Reinforcement in Managing Behavior

Differential Reinforcement plays a pivotal role in managing behaviour, particularly in scenarios involving children with autism or individuals with other behavioural challenges. By specifically identifying and reinforcing desired behaviours while ignoring or minimally acknowledging undesired behaviours, this strategy helps shape and modify behaviour over time.

It provides a positive and constructive approach to behaviour management, as it focuses on building up alternative or incompatible behaviours, rather than solely attempting to extinguish or punish a problematic behaviour. Furthermore, because reinforcement is tailored to the individual’s preferences, it is intrinsically motivating, which often leads to more lasting behavioural change. The regular application of differential reinforcement can enhance the learning environment, facilitate skill development, and contribute to a more positive, rewarding experience for both the individual and their caregivers or educators.

Benefits of Using Differential Reinforcement in ABA

The application of Differential Reinforcement in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) offers multiple benefits, especially for individuals with autism or other behavioral disorders. Firstly, it prioritizes the promotion of positive behaviors over the punishment of negative ones, making it a constructive approach to behavior management. This method supports the development of adaptive behaviors and skills that can enhance social interactions and learning opportunities. Secondly, because the reinforcement used is often personalized to the individual’s preferences, it can create a motivating and engaging environment for learning. Finally, Differential Reinforcement provides a structured framework for behavior change, offering consistency and predictability, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals who thrive on routine. By consistently reinforcing desired behaviors and reducing reinforcement for undesired ones, Differential Reinforcement can promote substantial and lasting behavior change.

Potential Challenges in Differential Reinforcement

While Differential Reinforcement is a powerful tool in behaviour management, it also presents certain challenges that need to be considered. Firstly, identifying an effective reinforcer can be complex, as it must be something that the individual finds truly motivating. This could observing or simply asking questions on what the child wants. Secondly, the implementation of Differential Reinforcement requires consistent application, which might be challenging in environments with multiple caregivers or in situations with varying circumstances. There’s also the risk of creating an over-reliance on external rewards for behaviour control, potentially limiting the development of intrinsic motivation. Therefore, working with an ABA professional such as a BCBA, can help ensure reinforcers are faded out accordingly and maintained over time. Additionally, some critics argue that it might inadvertently encourage undesired behaviours if not managed carefully. Despite these challenges, with proper training and consistent application, Differential Reinforcement can yield beneficial results in managing and encouraging positive behaviour changes.

Differential Reinforcement vs. Other Reinforcement Strategies

Differential Reinforcement stands out among other reinforcement strategies due to its explicit focus on modifying behavior by reinforcing desired actions while ignoring or not reinforcing unwanted behaviors. This contrasts with other reinforcement strategies like continuous reinforcement, where a reward is provided every time a certain behavior occurs, or intermittent reinforcement, where rewards are given only occasionally. These methods might encourage the desired behavior, but they don’t directly discourage unwanted behaviors.

Further, compared to punishment-based methods, Differential Reinforcement is often seen as a more positive and less harmful approach. It fosters a positive learning environment by focusing on rewarding good behaviour instead of punishing bad behaviour. This can be particularly important when working with individuals who may already struggle with behavioural self-regulation, as it helps to build up their confidence and encourage the consistent repetition of desired behaviours. Ultimately, the best reinforcement strategy will depend on the individual’s needs and the specific behavioural objectives.


What are the 4 types of differential reinforcement?

The four types of differential reinforcement are: Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO), Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI), Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA), and Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL).

What is an example of differential reinforcement of other behaviour ABA?

An example of Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO) in ABA might be a parent giving their child praise for every five minutes that they don’t interrupt them on the phone, thus reinforcing periods of time where the undesired behaviour does not occur.

How does differential reinforcement work?

Differential reinforcement works by reinforcing or rewarding certain desirable behaviours while ignoring or not reinforcing undesirable ones, which over time, helps increase the frequency of the desired behaviours and decrease the frequency of the undesired ones.

What are the different types of differential reinforcement ABA?

The different types of differential reinforcement in ABA include Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO), Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI), Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA), and Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL).