Differential Reinforcement

EIBP_reinforcement_pound it_2


When we talk about differential reinforcement, we are usually talking about its application to challenging behavior. In this case, differential reinforcement consists of two parts: (1) withholding reinforcement for the challenging behavior, and (2) providing reinforcement for an appropriate replacement behavior, an incompatible behavior, or absence of the challenging behavior. Watch the following video, and consider how this is an example of differential reinforcement:

The teacher aimed to teach the child to request singing by pulling off a “sing” icon on his communication, in lieu of whining or engaging in self-injurious behavior. If the child pulled off the icon (prompted or unprompted), the teacher reinforced this behavior by singing to him. If the child whined or engaged in self-injurious behavior, the teacher withheld reinforcement by not singing.

Note how the application of differential reinforcement in this example meets both requirements of the definition: reinforcement is withheld for challenging behavior (whining and self-injurious behavior) and provided for an appropriate replacement behavior (AAC requesting). This is just one application of differential reinforcement! There are many ways to apply differential reinforcement.

Although it is highly effective, some adults may not find it easy to ignore challenging behavior. However, this is what makes the procedure “differential”. If a child is reinforced for challenging and appropriate behavior (e.g., A teacher gives him attention for both positive and negative behaviors), he or she is likely to continue engaging in the challenging behavior. You should talk with all members of a child’s team (teachers, assistant teachers, parents, other caregivers) to determine what supports are needed for all adults to use the same plan (e.g., visual reminders, coaching).

What are the different types (schedules) 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). For more information on differential reinforcement and the many possible applications, see the resources listed at the bottom of this page.

1. Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA) 

EBIP_responsive play interactions_2When applying a DRA, you will withhold reinforcement for challenging behavior and provide reinforcement for an appropriate replacement behavior. We recommend the use of DRAs with children, because they simultaneously reduce problem behavior and reinforce a new and appropriate skill. However, it is important to remember that appropriate replacement skills are unlikely to occur unless they are systematically taught and prompted, in addition to being reinforced. You should also try to teach an alternative behavior that is easier for the child to engage in when compared to the challenging behavior.

Now that you have a better understanding of DRAs, consider this applied example:

Ms. Annie aimed to teach Sammy to raise his hand during circle time, in lieu of calling out. If Sammy raised his hand during circle time (independently or with a prompt), Ms. Annie reinforced this behavior by calling on him (i.e., giving him attention). If Sammy called out during circle time, Ms. Annie withheld reinforcement for this behavior by ignoring him (i.e., withholding attention). While Ms. Annie was teaching Sammy, she provided many opportunities to practice raising his hand, and prompted the behavior as needed, during times when the problem behavior wasn’t already occurring.

Now consider how this example relates to our definition of DRAs: 

EBIP_Differential Reinforcement_DRA
2. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

DRIs are very EBIP_reinforcement_edibles_2similar
to DRAs, in that you withhold reinforcement for
challenging behavior and provide reinforcement for an appropriate replacement behavior. When using a DRI, you select an appropriate replacement behavior that cannot occur at the same time as the challenging behavior. In the example above, Sammy could raise his hand and call out at the same time, so this would not be considered a DRI. Examples of incompatible behaviors might be: (a) having hands in lap instead of touching nearby peers or objects during circle time, (b) tapping a peer on the shoulder instead of pushing him, and (c) drawing on paper instead of drawing on tables or walls. You might consider using a DRI if your child consistently engages in the challenging behavior and appropriate replacement behavior at the same time. If Sammy continues to call out while raising his hand, for example, you might change the replacement behavior to raising one hand while putting one finger over his closed mouth circle time. Consider this applied example:

Mrs. Beth’s data indicated that Marco threw toys in free play in order to access teacher and peer attention. If Marco was playing appropriately with the toys, she reinforced the appropriate play behaviors providing him high-quality, one-on-one attention. If Marco was throwing toys in free play, Mrs. Beth blocked the behavior to keep the other children safe, but withheld reinforcement by avoiding eye contact and verbal attention.

Now consider how this example relates to our definition of DRIs:

EBIP_Differential Reinforcement_DRI

3. Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

evidence-based-instructional-practices-1cWhen applying a DRO, you will withhold reinforcement for challenging
behavior and provide reinforcement for any other behavior in a specified time period. Typically when using DROs, you will decide on a time interval (e.g., 30 seconds, 2 minutes), and provide reinforcement (a) if no challenging behavior occurs within the time interval (e.g., no challenging behavior for a full 30 seconds) or (b) if no challenging behavior occurs when the time interval ends (e.g., no challenging behavior occurring when your 2-minute timer goes off). These are called interval DROs and momentary DROs, respectively. DROs can be a useful starting point if you are unable to identify or quickly teach an appropriate replacement behavior, but DROs have several pitfalls. First, DROs do not include systematic teaching of appropriate replacement skills. When children learn what not to do, but don’t learn what to do instead, they are unlikely to begin engaging in appropriate behaviors (and, in fact, may begin engaging in new challenging behaviors!). Second, because you reinforce the absence of a particular challenging behavior, you may inadvertently reinforce other challenging behaviors. Third, if you provide reinforcement only when your interval timer beeps (i.e., momentary DRO), you are not addressing any challenging behavior that occurs while the timer is still ticking. Though momentary DROs may be more practical in busy classrooms, they may not be as efficient at reducing challenging behavior as other types of reinforcement.

Now that you have a better understanding of DROs, consider this applied example:

Mr. Carlos aims to address Paige’s elopement from small group instruction, as Paige frequently runs away from the table during instruction. Mr. Daniel sets a 30-second hourglass timer within Paige’s view during small group instruction. If Paige does not elope from her seat for the entire 30 seconds, Mr. Carlos reinforces the absence of elopement by giving her a Goldfish® cracker and restarting the timer. He gives her the Goldfish® regardless of what she is doing in her seat (e.g., playing with the materials, looking at the ceiling). If Paige runs away from her seat, Mr. Carlos withholds reinforcement by blocking her elopement (keeping her in her seat) and by withholding the Goldfish® when the timer runs out. He then resets the timer for another try.

Now consider how this example relates to our definition of DROs:

EBIP_Differential Reinforcement_DRO

What should I consider when using differential reinforcement?

  1. Select your schedule of reinforcement. Based on the information above and your additional research using the resources below, determine the schedule of reinforcement that is feasible for your teaching team that will be most likely to result in decreased challenging behavior. Whenever possible, also select a reinforcement schedule that includes teaching and reinforcing an appropriate replacement behavior (i.e., DRI, DRA).
  1. Select an appropriate replacement behavior (when applicable). If you are using a DRA or DRI, select a replacement behavior that is (a) within the child’s current abilities, based on his or her level of development (e.g., picture exchange for a child with adequate fine motor skills but limited verbal repertoire), (b) less effortful than the challenging behavior (e.g., one or two word requests for a child who consistently uses two word phrases), and (c) likely to be universally understood by parents, practitioners, and people in his community (e.g., American Sign Language signs in lieu of signs you’ve invented). You may need to specifically plan for similar reinforcement to occur for the same behaviors across settings (e.g., discuss specific behaviors to be reinforced with parents and practitioners; provide “cheat sheets” describing the plans).
  1. Select a EBIP_reinforcement_independent group contingency_4powerful reinforcer. If possible, identify the reinforcer that the child is trying to access by engaging in challenging behavior (see Challenging Behavior as Communication for more information), and use this as your reinforcer for appropriate or other behavior. If you are unable to identify the desired reinforcer, select a high-preferred reinforcer that you can deliver frequently. See the Preference Assessment section if you need help identifying likely reinforcers.
  1. Start out by providing reinforcers frequently and consistently, and gradually fade how often you provide reinforcers. When you first apply differential reinforcement, start by reinforcing desirable behavior very frequently (e.g., the alternative or other behavior). For example, you might reinforce every single instance of appropriate behavior for a DRA, or reinforce every 30 seconds without challenging behavior for a DRO. At first, this may mean you need to frequently prompt the child to engage in the appropriate behaviors, so that he or she can access reinforcement. Once the child is consistently accessing reinforcement, you can gradually fade how often you give reinforcement. For example, you might start reinforcing every other instance of appropriate behavior for a DRA, or reinforce every minute without challenging behavior for a DRO. 
  1. Consider competing reinforcement, and whether you can withhold all reinforcement for challenging behavior. For some challenging behaviors, you may not be able to eliminate all reinforcement. For example, you may not be able to control peer attention for a child who calls out in circle time to access attention. In situations in which it not possible to eliminate all reinforcement for challenging behavior, implement a rich schedule of reinforcement for appropriate/other behaviors. For the child in circle time, for example, you might provide the child with frequent, enthusiastic attention for hand-raising or appropriate sitting behaviors, thereby making your attention more reinforcing than peer attention. Other behaviors, like stereotypy (e.g., flapping items in front of eyes) result in idiosyncratic or unidentifiable reinforcement. If this is the case, you may need to identify a highly-preferred reinforcer that can be delivered frequently for non-occurrence of the target behavior. You might also prevent the occurrence of stereotypy and use that behavior as the reinforcer (e.g., allow child access to favorite toys to flap in front of his eyes following completion of a difficult task, during which flapping was blocked).
  1. Combine differential reinforcement with systematic teaching of new skills. Children are unlikely to learn new skills (including appropriate replacement behaviors) solely through the application of DRAs, DRIs, and DROs. Even for DROs, you should still teach appropriate replacement skills, such as engaging appropriately with toys in lieu of engaging in stereotypy. You can teach appropriate behaviors using systematic procedures like the System of Least Prompts or Progressive Time Delay.


Where can I find additional information regarding differential reinforcement?

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Differential reinforcement. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from http://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/ebip/differential-reinforcement