Differential Reinforcement: Using Differential Reinforcement to Reduce Maladaptive Behaviors (2023)

Although positive reinforcement is talked about often, the concept of reinforcement is more complex than it may seem. There are different types of reinforcement including multiple types of differential reinforcement.

Differential reinforcement can be used in different ways in the natural environment, such as in a child’s home or in the community or even in a school setting (as well as in a clinic, of course).

Differential reinforcement involves providing reinforcement to one response class and not providing – or withholding – reinforcement for another response class (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014).

Differential reinforcement is one of the most highly recommended strategies for reducing problem behavior, in part because it does not rely on punishment procedures or intrusive techniques.

When differential reinforcement is used to reduce maladaptive behavior, it includes the following two characteristics:

  1. Providing reinforcement for the occurrence of a behavior that is NOT the targeted maladaptive behavior OR providing reinforcement for reduced rate of the maladaptive behavior
  2. Withholding reinforcement (not reinforcing) the targeted maladaptive behavior as much as possible

There are four main types of differential reinforcement. These include:

  1. DRI = Differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors
  2. DRA = Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors
  3. DRO = Differential reinforcement of other behavior
  4. DRL = Differential reinforcement of low rates of the behavior

With DRI, a behavior that is “incompatible” with the targeted behavior is reinforced at a higher rate than the targeted behavior itself.

What is an incompatible behavior in DRI?

An incompatible behavior is considered a behavior that is topographically different than the targeted behavior.

(Video) Differential Reinforcement

Basically, an incompatible behavior is something that a person does instead of the target behavior. By engaging in an incompatible behavior, the target behavior cannot be displayed.

Example of DRI

For instance, if you are typing on a computer, theoretically you cannot be biting your nails at the same time.

Another example for a child whose maladaptive behavior being targeted for reduction is his self-injurious skin picking could be that he uses his fingers to play with a fidget toy or play dough instead.

Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors, or DRA, is when reinforcement is provided for a desired “alternative” behavior.

What is an alternative behavior in DRA?

An alternative behavior is a behavior that is preferable over the targeted maladaptive behavior.

An alternative behavior is not the same thing as an incompatible behavior because, technically, the person could still engage in both the new alternative behavior and the targeted maladaptive behavior at the same time.

Example of DRA

For instance, a parent may want to see their child picking up his toys instead of talking to his sibling. Since the child could do both of these behaviors at the same time, picking up toys is not an incompatible behavior. Instead, picking up toys is an alternative behavior to talking.

Tips for using DRI and DRA

When either DRI or DRA is used, there are a few things to keep in mind (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014).

(Video) Differential Reinforcement Procedures: D-21

Choose replacement behaviors that already exist in the individual’s repertoire

Whether an incompatible or alternative behavior is being reinforced, the behavior should be something that the person can already do.

Replacement behavior should require less response effort than the maladaptive behavior being targeted for reduction

As much as possible, the new behavior being reinforced should require less effort to display compared to the targeted problem behavior. This in combination with reinforcement will make it more likely that the individual will engage in the replacement behavior rather than the problem behavior.

A replacement behavior should be something that is likely to allow the person to access reinforcement in his natural environment

Whether a DRI or DRA procedure is being implemented in a clinic, school, or home setting, the replacement behavior being reinforced should be something that is likely to lead to reinforcement in the individual’s everyday natural environment.

Reinforcement for replacement behaviors should be equivalent or stronger than the reinforcement that was maintaining the maladaptive behavior

When considering what to use to reinforce the incompatible or alternative behavior, providing reinforcement that is similar to what was reinforcing the maladaptive behavior is highly recommended.

Differential reinforcement involves providing reinforcement only if the targeted behavior was NOT displayed during a specific duration of time OR at a specific moment in time.

Types of DRO

A DRO procedure can include one of two approaches.

  1. Interval DRO
  2. Momentary DRO

An interval DRO is when reinforcement is given after a specific amount of time has passed and only if the targeted behavior was not displayed during that entire time.

A momentary DRO is when reinforcement is given at a specific moment in time if the targeted behavior is not being displayed at that time.

(Video) The Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) Exam Review [Part 5]

Schedules of a DRO

A DRO can be implemented on two different schedules of reinforcement which include:

  1. Fixed time schedule
  2. Variable time schedule

Example of DRO

An example of a DRO procedure could be when a child displays self-injury or aggression and they are reinforced at specific intervals of time if they did not engage in this type of behavior during the designated duration of time.

For instance, every five minutes that passes that a child did not display aggression, he receives reinforcement.

Tips for Using DRO

Encourage success when selecting intervals

When using DRO to reduce problem behavior, identify an interval of time in which the individual is highly likely to access reinforcement for “other behavior” with no problem behavior being displayed during that time.

For instance, if a child engages in self-injury about every ten to twenty minutes, a potential duration for the beginning of a DRO procedure could be to provide reinforcement every five minutes.

Consider whether you may reinforce other maladaptive behaviors

When using a DRO, it’s possible that you could reinforce maladaptive behaviors that are not the initially identified maladaptive behavior. Consider this and watch for this as you use this procedure.

Systematically increase the interval

Be sure to slowly and systematically increase the duration of time between access to reinforcement for other behaviors.

Differential reinforcement of low rates of responding for a target behavior involves reducing the rate the person displays a specific behavior.

(Video) RBT Task List Practice Questions | Differential Reinforcement Procedures | RBT Exam Review

A DRL procedure will result in low and consistent rates of a particular behavior.

Types of DRL

There are a few different types of DRL. These include:

  1. Full-session DRL
  2. Interval DRL
  3. Spaced-responding DRL

A full session DRL is when reinforcement is provided only if the behavior was displayed at a rate within the criterion set for the entire session.

An interval DRL is when reinforcement is provided after specific intervals of time if the behavior was displayed at or below the criterion set for the interval.

A spaced-responding DRL is when reinforcement is provided based upon the behavior being displayed only after a set amount of time has passed since the last time the behavior was displayed.

Example of DRL

An example of a DRL could be when a child who repeatedly walks away from his homework gets reinforced if they meet a set criteria for the amount of breaks or times they are allowed to walk away while doing their homework.

For instance, a child tends to get up and walk away from the table while his mom (or teacher) wants him to do his homework. Although it’s acceptable to his parent and teacher that he takes breaks now and then, they believe it’s becoming an issue and then results in his homework taking much longer than it should to complete. The child is allowed to get up five times at first throughout doing his homework. He is reinforced after his homework is complete if he got up five or fewer times. Then, after successfully meeting this criterion, he is only allowed to leave his homework four times. And so on.

Tips for Using DRL

Don’t use a DRL for behaviors that need to be reduced quickly

When using a DRL procedure, consider that this method may take some time to gain the desired outcome. Therefore, it is not recommended to use a DRL when a behavior needs to be reduced quickly.

Don’t use a DRL for self-injurious or aggressive behaviors

DRL is also not advisable for behaviors that involve self-injury or aggression toward others especially since the goal for these types of behaviors is often complete extinction rather than simply making them happen less often.

Systematically change the criterion needed for reinforcement

Consider the ultimate goal for what the ideal rate of responding would be and then systematically move toward this goal from the individual’s baseline level of responding.

One of the four main types of differential reinforcement can be used to reduce problem behaviors.

(Video) Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI), differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors (DRA), differential reinforcement of other behaviors (DRO), and differential reinforcement of low rates of responding (DRL) can be used to reduce problem behaviors.

DRI, DRA, DRO, and DRL can be used in a variety of settings to help an individual reduce maladaptive behaviors.


How can differential reinforcement of other Behaviours reduce an unwanted Behaviour? ›

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

DRO reinforces any behavior other than the unwanted behavior. This is usually done by setting a time interval, and if the inappropriate behavior doesn't occur during this time period, reinforcement is provided.

What is an example of differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior? ›

Another example of a behavior that could be treated with DRI is that of a young child who, while watching television, continually “twiddles” with her hair to the extent that bald patches are appearing. Such hair “twiddling” could be reduced by reinforcing the child for cuddling a teddy bear.

What does differential reinforcement mean in psychology? ›

Differential reinforcement is the process of reinforcing a specific response in a particular context and not reinforcing (i.e., extinguishing) other responses.

What are the methods of differential reinforcement? ›

There are many different schedules of differential reinforcement; here, we will explore three commonly used types: (1) differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA); (2) differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI); and (3) differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO).

What is an example of differential reinforcement of other behavior? ›

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

DRO involves rewarding the child when the inappropriate behavior does not occur during a specific amount of time. An example of this type of differential reinforcement would be a child who repeatedly leaves his seat during dinnertime.

What two behavioral principles are involved in differential reinforcement? ›

What two behavioral principles are involved in differential reinforcement? - combining reinforcement for a desirable behavior and extinction of undesirable behaviors.

What is the difference between differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior? ›

The Real Difference Between DRA and DRI

As stated earlier: If the alternative behavior you choose to reinforce is incompatible with the target behavior, then the intervention is a DRI procedure. If the alternative behavior is not incompatible with the target behavior, then the intervention is a DRA procedure.

In which situations are differential reinforcement? ›

Differential reinforcement is defined as reinforcing a specific class of behavior while withholding reinforcement for other classes of behavior. For example, if the target behavior is for the learner to point to the color blue when instructed to, "Point to blue," he is only reinforced when pointing to the color blue.

Why do we use differential reinforcement? ›

More specifically, differential reinforcement is a strategy used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) to address challenging or undesirable behavior, usually in children.

Why is differential reinforcement important? ›

Differential reinforcement is an effective strategy for increasing desirable behavior and decreasing undesirable behavior. Its numerous variations allow for flexibility and adaptability to individual contexts. DRA and DRI provide reinforcement for an alternative or incompatible behavior, respectively.

Does negative reinforcement decrease behavior? ›

With negative reinforcement, you are increasing a behavior, whereas with punishment, you are decreasing a behavior.

In which situations are differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior used? ›

Differential reinforcement of low rates of responding (DRL) is a technique in which a positive reinforcer is delivered at the end of a specific interval if a target behavior has occurred at a criterion rate. Traditionally, it has been used in educational settings to manage classroom behaviors.

What makes reinforcement more effective? ›

Positive reinforcement is most effective when it occurs immediately after the behavior. Reinforcement should be presented enthusiastically and should occur frequently. Deliver reinforcement quickly. A shorter time between a behavior and positive reinforcement makes a stronger connection.


1. ABA Therapy: Reinforcement, Punishment, and Maladaptives
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2. abA to Z Differential Reinforcement
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3. Differential Reinforcement - - Parent Support University with AnswersNow
4. Differentially Reinforcing Adaptive Behaviour
(The Association for Psychological Therapies (APT))
5. Psychology (EPPP) Study Guide!!!
(Tech Viking!)
6. FOI 2017 Joe Ryan, Ph.D. "Keys to Developing a Sound Behavior Management Plan"
(Indiana IEPRC)
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