Differential Reinforcement

token board

Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement is a standard method used in ABA. So you may be asking yourself, what is it? Differential reinforcement is commonly defined as reinforcing a specific class of behavior while withholding reinforcement for other behavior classes. At first, it seems counterintuitive to withhold discouraging undesirable behavior, but when you shift your focus to the desired behavior, you’re already delivering differential reinforcement!

Types of Differential reinforcement

Four types of differential reinforcement are used in ABA. At SOAR, we individualize treatment for every client, including the type of differential reinforcement we use. The function of the behavior also plays a role in what kind of differential reinforcement is used.


DRO, differential reinforcement of other behavior, means rewarding the child when the problem behavior is not occurring for some time. For example, suppose your child has difficulty refraining from talking to peers while sitting at the table. In that case, you could deliver DRO by giving them a sticker (reinforcement) every two-minute interval that they refrain from talking to peers. Setting this expectation while actively reinforcing the “other behavior” (refraining from talking) naturally puts the problem behavior on extinction without experiencing the “extinction burst.” A token economy can provide a visual for this type of reinforcement.


DRI, differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior, involves reinforcing a behavior that cannot co-occur as the problem behavior. We can use the same example from DRO but implement a more frequent schedule of reinforcement. For example, every time the child speaks to a peer, receiving a sticker is unavailable. A sticker is provided when the child refrains from speaking to the peer and shifts their attention to the instructor. Receiving a sticker and attention from the instructor is unavailable (incompatible) until the child refrains from talking to the peer. Of course, a sticker might not be of high enough value for your child, so finding the right reinforcement is key.


DRA, differential reinforcement of alternative behavior, is frequently used in ABA. This type of reinforcement can be used in any environment and provides flexibility for the behavior to occur appropriately. For example, your child pulls on your sweater and whines when gaining your attention. The parent would ignore this form of gaining attention and immediately provide the desired attention when the child gains attention appropriately (say parents name, tap shoulder, say “excuse me,” etc.). This is a personal favorite of mine because it can be used at any time, anywhere! DRA communicates to your child the appropriate way to meet their needs. The non-preferred behavior will naturally fade out when the desired response does not occur.


Lastly, we have DRL, which stands for differential reinforcement of low rates. This type of differential reinforcement encourages the child to decrease the frequency of a behavior. This type of reinforcement is beneficial when the behavior itself is appropriate, but the rate it occurs is inappropriate. Therefore, the child will only receive the desirable reinforcer if the behavior happens only once or at a lower rate than usual. A simplistic example could be if the child repeatedly asks what time lunch is. Asking what time lunch is is a common question for a child and a way to express they are hungry. If the child only asks once, DRL would reward the child with a highly preferred treat or access to the front of the lunch line. The child will build the association that rewards only occur when they refrain from asking repeatedly.

Please see the diagram below for a quick reference so you can start using differential reinforcement today!

To learn more about differential reinforcement, read this research article from the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis the discusses using differential reinforcement as an alternative to extinction.

For more blog posts by SOAR Behavior Services, visit soarbehaviorwa.com/family-resources.


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