Understanding Differential Reinforcement in ABA

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The differential reinforcement technique (R) is a behavioral approach to teaching that relies on positive reinforcement and punishment to shape behavior. ABA’s use of different types of punishments, including time-out and natural consequences. Differential reinforcement theory states that when the consequences are more favorable than the rewards, it becomes easier for people to learn new skills

Differential reinforcement is a type of behavior modification technique that uses positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. In this technique, the positive reinforcement is used to motivate the desired behavior, while the negative reinforcement is used to prevent or reduce undesired behaviors.


Differential reinforcement is a wide word that refers to a variety of methods for modifying maladaptive behaviour.

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI) aims to replace a problem target activity with an adaptive behavior that cannot be performed simultaneously.

DRA (differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors) encourages people to choose alternative behaviors over maladaptive habits, even if both are possible.

The absence of the maladaptive behavior is rewarded by DRO (differential reinforcement of alternative behavior).

DRL (differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior) rewards reduced rates of maladaptive behaviors rather than attempting to completely eliminate the target habit.

Each of these has quantifiable consequences, which an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist may use to assess how well a client is responding to therapy.

In ABA Therapy, Differential Reinforcement Aids in Measuring Behavioral Change

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) treatment aims to shift maladaptive habits, such as social isolation or screaming during a discussion, to adaptive behaviors, such as spending more time with friends and family.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) certifies ABA therapists, but they may employ a variety of strategies to help their clients, who are often children or adults on the autism spectrum. Different strategies may be more effective for particular individuals in reducing their symptoms and allowing them to live independent and fulfilling lives.

Positive reinforcement is often used by ABA therapists to encourage behavioral change. The idea is to make an adaptive activity that the client dislikes into a pleasurable experience so that they will be more inclined to continue doing it.

During and outside of ABA treatment, several sorts of reinforcement may occur. Differential reinforcement was created to better understand how giving reward for one action while not providing reinforcement or withholding from another might produce or stymie behavioral change.

Different sorts of differential reinforcement may be used in a variety of ways in the client’s natural environment. This may help children with autism generalize new behaviors to other situations.

Differential Reinforcement’s Four Types

Differential reinforcement may be divided into four categories.

1. Differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI): This reinforcement method employs a behavior that is “incompatible” with the issue behavior being reinforced. Clients are unable to conduct the issue behavior after being forced to engage in the incompatible activity. This reduces the rates of conflicting behavior over time. When a youngster is sketching, they cannot chew their fingernails at the same time.

2. Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors (DRA): This strategy includes rewarding the adaptive, alternative behavior while eliminating the dysfunctional behavior. However, since the adaptive behavior is unlikely to conflict with the targeted behavior, a kid with autism might possibly do both behaviors at the same time. The alternative behavior’s reward should be high enough to make the targeted action less desired or reinforced.

Instead of watching television, a parent can ask their kid to tidy up their toys in the living room. The youngster might theoretically continue to watch television while picking up toys, but tidying up their toys is a better option than simply watching TV.

3. Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO): Instead of picking alternatives to divert from the targeted behavior, this strategy rewards the kid when they are not practicing it. If a youngster chews their fingernails, for example, their ABA therapist may praise them for every 10-second period during which they do not do so. By doing so, the youngster may identify feeling good with the absence of the targeted behavior rather than the stimulation of the targeted action.

DRO is divided into two categories. These are they:

a. Interval, in which reinforcement is only delivered after a certain length of time has passed.

b. Momentary, when reinforcement is supplied at a certain time when the desired behavior is not shown.

4. Differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (DRL): DRL, like DRO, includes a reward when a behavior is not performed, but it concentrates on lower rates of targeted actions. Ultimately, the ABA therapist seeks to keep target behaviors small enough that they are not disruptive to the person’s life and, if feasible, eliminate the behavior by rewarding fewer frequent occurrences of the behavior or less severe instances of the behavior.

DRL comes in three varieties.

a. For the whole treatment session: Reinforcement is given to the kid only if the behavior was demonstrated at a pace considered suitable by the ABA therapist.

b. Interval: Similar to DRO, reinforcement is given if the behavior was demonstrated at or below acceptable levels for a certain period of time.

c. Spaced responding: Reinforcement is provided only after a certain amount of time has elapsed between the prior occurrence of the behavior and the present incidence of the behavior.

When a youngster gets up and walks away from schoolwork multiple times, this is an example of DRL. The parent who is assisting the kid with schoolwork wants the youngster to feel free to take breaks when they are needed, but must set limits on what “required” implies.

The parent, with the help of an ABA therapist, may inform the kid that they may get up five times while doing their schoolwork. They are not permitted to stand up after that.

Differential Reinforcement is supported by research.

Each of these four forms of differential reinforcement aims to decrease or eliminate a target behavior, which is usually a maladaptive one. Each of these forms of differential reinforcement may be used in a treatment plan by ABA therapists, however some overlap more easily than others.

Targeted maladaptive behaviors are reduced with DRA and DRI because adaptive actions are reinforced while maladaptive behaviors are denied any sort of reward, including negative reinforcement. This may be hard, and the ABA therapist may need to do some research to figure out how the client interacts with instructors, parents, siblings, or caretakers.

If a parent shouts at a kid to stop chewing on their fingernails, for example, the high emotional intensity, the parent’s attention, or other variables may unintentionally promote the maladaptive habit. Instead, the only attention provided to this action may be gently withdrawing the hand from the child’s lips. The youngster may then be diverted into doing something else with their hands (a DRI approach) or rewarded for selecting a healthier alternative to biting their fingernails (a DRA strategy).

Differential reinforcement strategies are evidence-based and help to alter behaviors to more adaptive actions, according to scientific study. In a 2010 research involving seven children with developmental problems, DRA was employed only, with no extinction component. The length of the alternative activity, the quality of the alternative conduct, the delay, and a combination of all three were all altered by the researchers.

Although behavior was frequently responsive to manipulations, the most significant finding of the research was that a combination of techniques to reinforce acceptable conduct reduced the rate of the target behavior more often than a single strategy.

Differential Reinforcement is often used by ABA therapists.

ABA therapists use differential reinforcement often. These strategies may assist them in objectively monitoring rates of behavioral change over time. The ABA therapist may assess whether one or more of these strategies serve to lessen maladaptive behaviors by separating target behaviors into timed or monitored occurrences. They may then determine whether or not their treatment plan needs to be adjusted depending on this information.

Differential reinforcement may already be used in sessions by your child’s ABA therapist. Inquire with the therapist about ways to reinforce these skills in your daily interactions with your kid.

Open a dialogue with your kid’s therapist if they aren’t employing this practice with your youngster. Differential reinforcement can be a good option for your youngster.


Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Fundamentals Utah State University

Behavior Analyst with Board Certification (BCBA). Board for Certification of Behavior Analysts (BACB).

Differential Reinforcement: Reducing Maladaptive Behaviors using Differential Reinforcement (January 2020). Central Psychiatry.

DRO stands for Differential Reinforcement Procedures for Other Behavior (2013). Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Encyclopedia

Incompatible Behavior Differential Reinforcement Procedures of Alternative Behavior (DRA/DRAlt) (DRI). (2013). Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Encyclopedia

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior Without Extinction: A Study (2010). The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis is a publication dedicated to the study of human behavior.

Reduce Children’s Requests for Teacher Attention Using Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (Autumn 2010). The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis is a publication dedicated to the study of human behavior.

Instruction in General Communication Using ABA Principles (May 2001). Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities are the focus.

Treatment of Automatically Reinforced Behavior using Differential Reinforcement Procedures. (In April of this year). The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis is a publication dedicated to the study of human behavior.

Differential Reinforcement in ABA is a technique that uses positive reinforcement for behaviors and negative reinforcement for non-compliant behaviors. In this article, we will explore the different types of differential reinforcement and how they can be used to change behavior in children with autism. Reference: drh aba.

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