Simply defined, differential reinforcement is reinforcing behaviors under certain circumstances and not reinforcing them under other circumstances. Instead of specifically punishing bad behaviors, you can use differential reinforcement to increase the desired behaviors. Using punishment or extinction can result in escape and avoidance behaviors from the child. Using the strategy of differential reinforcement avoids these potential side effects and focuses on “catching the child being good.”

You may provide differential reinforcement for low rates of the negative behavior, the absence of the problem behavior for a certain amount of time, or for an alternative behavior altogether. How and when you provide reinforcement will depend on the function of the problem behavior (i.e.,what the child is trying to get),and the frequency and intensity of the problem behavior.

Regardless of how you use differential reinforcement, you need to be sure you are always using a reinforcer – something that follows behavior and increases that behavior in the future – when the problem behavior is not occurring and when the problem behavior does occur, always put the problem behavior on extinction.

Here is the quick step guide to differential reinforcement:

1. Identify the problem behavior: Give specifics on what the behavior looks like

a. Example: hitting- when the child intentionally makes contact with himself or others with a closed or open fist

2. Record baseline data: For about three days prior to beginning any treatments pick a time of day to record data. Record how many times the problem behaviors occur, how much time there is between occurrences of problem behaviors, and the intensity and duration of the problem behavior.

3. Find a reinforcer for other behaviors: you can conduct a preference assessment or you may just use your knowledge of what your child loves.

a. Remember, when you provide reinforcement for a behavior, also provide praise so that praise becomes reinforcing to the child as well. Make sure to use items that are easy for you to access and that can be delivered immediately to the child.

b. The problem behavior is happening to get something, whether it is attention, a fun item or to get away from something. We know that what the child is trying to get is reinforcing. If is appropriate to provide this same thing after an appropriate behavior; use this as your reinforcer! Just remember, don’t provide it for bad behavior!

4. Decide which differential reinforcement procedure you would like to use

a. Depending on the procedure selected, you will be “differentially reinforcing” (reinforcingunder certain conditions):

i. the decrease in frequency of an inappropriate behavior (DRL): use this procedure when you do not want to get rid of the behavior all together

1. Example: your child is taking bites of food too quickly

2. Make sure to find out the appropriate level of responding before beginning.

ii. the absence of the undesired behavior during a designated time period (DRO): use this when there are high rates of a serious behavior and an alternative behavior is not observed.

1. Example: you want to reduce head banging in your child.

iii. the substitution of a more appropriate behavior in place of the inappropriate one (DRA): use this procedure if a replacement behavior is sometimes observed and the behavior is not serious enough that if you put it on extinction, the extinction burst will result in harm to the child.

1. Example: You want to reduce screaming in your child but your child often talks.

iv. the promotion of a more appropriate behavior that will actually prevent the occurrence of the inappropriate one (DRI): use this procedure when the behavior you want to reduce may be reinforcing to the child.

1. Example: you would like to reduce hand flapping because it is interfering with school work, but the child really enjoys hand-flapping.

5. Implement the differential reinforcement procedure while collecting data on how often the problem behavior occurs, how long it is between behaviors, and the intensity of the behaviors

a. DRL (Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior): the reinforcer is delivered when the rate of the problem behavior is decreased to a criterion level. In the DRL procedure, a lower rate of the problem behavior is reinforced. Remember, the child is trying to get something with the problem behavior; don’t allow him to get what he wants until low levels are observed.

i. Full-session DRL is where reinforcement is delivered if fewer than a specified number of responses occurs in a period of time. The session might be a class period or some other appropriate period at home, school, work.

ii. Spaced-responding DRL is when there must be a specified amount of time between responses for the reinforcer to be delivered. The objective is to pace the behavior.


b. DRO (Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors): The reinforcer is given upon the absence of the problem behavior. The child is trying to get something and whatever the child is trying to receive is not given to him until no problem behaviors have occurred for a certain time period.

i. DRO involves delivering the reinforcer after an interval of time in which the problem behavior does not occur. The length of the interval for delivering the reinforcer should be tied to the baseline rate of the problem behavior: if the problem behavior occurs frequently, the DRO interval will be short; if the problem behavior occurs infrequently, the DRO interval will be longer. As the frequency of the problem behavior decreases, the DRO intervals can be lengthened gradually.

ii. Implementing DRO: Start a stop watch with the designated interval. At the end of each interval, deliver the reinforcer ONLY IF the problem behavior hasn’t occurred. For instance, if the DRO interval is 10 minutes, any time the problem behavior occurs, 10 minutes is reset on the stopwatch again. However, if the problem behavior DOESN’T occur in the 10 minutes, the reinforcer is delivered.

c. DRA (Differential Reinforcement of an alternative behavior): increase the frequency of desirable behavior via reinforcement and decrease the frequency of undesirable behaviors via extinction. By decreasing an interfering problem behavior through extinction, it creates an opportunity for the desirable behavior to occur and be reinforced (when the child is not able to get what they want through problem behaviors they try new behaviors to try to get what they want- if a new behavior is more appropriate, give reinforcement right away)

i. Reinforce the desirable behavior immediately and consistently (continuous reinforcement schedule)

ii. Eliminate reinforcement for the undesirable behaviors

iii. When problem behaviors go down, you may decrease the consistency to which you reinforce the desirable behavior ( you can reinforce less frequently, not every time)


d. DRI (Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior): this procedure is the same as DRA except that the alternative behavior is physically incompatible with the problem behavior, and therefore can’t occur at the same time

i. Example: head-slapping, in which individuals slap themselves on the side of the head with their hands, any alternative behavior involving the use of the hands, like playing with toys would be an incompatible behavior.

ii. In this procedure, the appropriate procedure may have to be prompted more often than in the other procedures.

This all seems like a lot of information. The main point is to provide what the child wants when they are doing an acceptable behavior, but not when they are engaging in a problem behavior. The differential reinforcement procedures are just a structured way of implementing the same thought pattern.

For a helpful video on differential reinforcement, please view this link. What behaviors have you used these procedures on to help your child?


Published On: June 5th, 2013 / Categories: Blog, Verbal Behavior Program (ABA/VB) /

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