Tip of the Week: Why Differential Reinforcement is Preferred to Punishment

In B.F. Skinner’s phenomenal book The Technology of Teaching, he briefly discusses problems with punishment. He explains that the use of punishment (defined as adding or subtracting something from the environment in order to reduce the occurrence of a behavior), is not as clear-cut as we might imagine.  When we attempt to punish a behavior, it’s quite likely that we will unintentionally suppress a broader range of behaviors than we intended.

Skinner gives the example of a child who has touched a candle flame and been burned. The child has probably been taught not to touch the flame, but Skinner argues that it’s quite possible that “in the presence of a candle flame he will not be likely to explore any part of the environment, to reach for or grasp objects of any kind” (Skinner, 1968, p. 186). This is an important consideration, especially when we consider the classroom.  We have to ask ourselves, when we punish certain behaviors, are we unintentionally suppressing other, desirable behaviors?  And in punishing the undesirable behavior, are we clearly communicating to the child what the desirable behavior is?

Skinner then moves on to discuss alternatives to punishment. What he describes is known today as differential reinforcement.  Since Skinner wrote The Technology of Teaching, a great deal of research has been completed on differential reinforcement, which “consists of reinforcing particular behavior(s) of a given class (or form, pattern or topography) while placing those same behaviors on extinction and/or punishing them when they fail to match performance standards or when they occur under inappropriate stimulus conditions” (Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace, 2014).  Put simply, we reinforce the desired behavior and do not reinforce the undesired behavior.

Today we have categories for many different types of differential reinforcement to better describe strategies for implementation.

Types of differential reinforcement include:

  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)
  • Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)
  • Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)
  • Differential Reinforcement of High Rates of Behavior (DRH)
  • Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL)

Differential reinforcement is an incredibly useful tool for teachers and parents.  So we will devote several Tips of the Week over the upcoming months to how to use it effectively, taking a closer look at each of the types listed above.


Mayer, G. Roy, Sulzer-Azaroff-B. & Wallace, M. (2013). Behavior analysis for lasting change (3rd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Tip of the Week: Clearing Up the Misconceptions About Reinforcement

ABA often gets a bad rap due to misunderstandings about reinforcement. In my career alone, I’ve had people tell me that people are not like rats and pigeons, that reinforcement harms intrinsic motivation, and that when I do produce behavior change, it has nothing to do with ABA but with my abilities as a teacher. Today, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about reinforcement.

Reinforcement is not equivalent to rewards. Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately following a behavior that increases the future likelihood of that behavior. For instance, I am more likely to say hello to my neighbor down the street because in the past he has responded by saying “hello” back to me. However, I do not say hello to my next door neighbor because she has never responded to my greeting. My history of reinforcement with the neighbor down the street increases the likelihood that I will greet him upon seeing him.

Flowers GrassReinforcement occurs in the natural environment all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not. We are reinforced by paychecks for going to work, by our favorite dessert for visiting a restaurant 30 minutes out of our way, by compliments when we get a new haircut, and more. ABA utilizes reinforcement when an individual is not acquiring skills in order to help them learn. And when ABA is implemented correctly, reinforcement should be as close to naturally occurring reinforcers as possible and should be reduced systematically over time to levels that would naturally occur in their environment.

Reinforcement works for dogs and for humans. The previous two points illustrate that humans do respond to reinforcement, and decades of scientific research back that up. Comparing the work behavior analysts do with humans to the work behavior analysts do with other animals is not far off base. What is off base is using such a comparison to imply that behavior analysts treat people with disabilities like dogs. As with other professionals who work with individuals with disabilities, (such as speech therapists, physical therapists, nurses, etc.) most behavior analysts are professionals who put a lot of time, care, and love into their work.

Child Blowing BubblesReinforcement is individualized. Everything we do in ABA is individualized, because human beings are wonderfully complex creatures that cannot be characterized by statistics, averages, or norms. One of my students may find stickers reinforcing; another may show no interest. One student may find listening to music reinforcing; another may cover his ears and ask me to turn it off. In ABA, we seek to find the items and activities that are motivating for individuals; then use those as tools not only for reinforcement, but for increasing skills and broadening interests and opportunities. In an ideal ABA session, my students spend a lot of time engaging with items and activities that they enjoy while also learning and growing.

It’s easy to fall prey to misconceptions about reinforcement, but such misconceptions can make it impossible for us to understand how to alter the environment in order to provide the best possible outcomes for our students. As Skinner put it, “The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.”

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing a series on Differential Reinforcement procedures that will help you become more skilled in using reinforcement to affect behavior change.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Pick of the Week: Electronic Tally Counter

Use the Electronic Tally Counter to stay on track! This week only, you can also take 15%* off your order of the Electronic Tally Counter by using promo code ETALLY at check-out!

When activated, an audible beep sounds to verify that a count has been registered. With a carrying cord and a large rubber button, the Electronic Tally Counter is an easy-to-use tool.

Don’t forget to apply our promo code ETALLY at check-out to redeem your savings on the Electronic Tally Counter this week only!

Pick of the Week: NEW! SchKIDules Visual Schedules for Kids in the Home and Classroom

Brand-new and just added, these SchKIDules Visual Schedules for Kids are a great and easy way to create visual schedules in the home and classroom. This week only, we’re offering 15% off* the SchKIDules Home Collection and the SchKIDules School Collection! Just use promo code SCHKIDULE when you place your order online or over the phone with us!

This 70-piece Home Collection depicts home essentials, chores, and outings, and is a great tool for easily creating visual schedules in the home. It helps manage communication, expectations, predictability, independence, improving memory, and more.

The Home Collection contains one 14″ x 12″ magnet board; 19 Headings magnets for structuring your schedule including: Days of the Week, Morning/Afternoon/Evening, Numbers 1 to 5, To Do/Done, and First/Then.

Seventy 2″ x 2″ magnets display daily activities such as:

  • bike riding
  • dentist
  • playground
  • music
  • out to eat
  • party
  • shopping
  • play date
    and so many more.

The School Collection contains 30 pieces that depict typical school day activities to support the easy creation of a visual schedule for the day. The School Collection contains one 14″ x 12″ magnet board; 19 Headings magnets for structuring your schedule including: Days of the Week; Numbers 1 to 5; To Do/Done; First/Then; and Morning/Afternoon/Evening. Thirty 2″ x 2″ magnets depict school activities and objects such as:

  • assembly
  • calendar
  • centers
  • circle time
  • dismissal
  • field trip
  • line up
  • math
  • story time
  • science
  • group work
    and more!

Don’t forget to use our promo code SCHKIDULE to save 15%* on either or both of the SchKIDule Home Collection and the SchKIDule School Collection this week only!

The Countdown to “ABA Tools of the Trade” Begins

We’re incredibly excited to let you know about a new collaboration between Sam Blanco, MSEd, BCBA and Val Demiri, PhD that will focus on data collection and effective behavior change in the classroom while utilizing the most effective tools in ABA. Different Roads to Learning is proud to have this excellent resource scheduled for publication in early 2016. The partnership between these two powerhouses is sure to make ABA Tools of the Trade: A Resource for Data Collection and Effective Behavior Change a must-have for your library.

The book bridges the gap between applied research and real-world settings, including the classroom, home, and community environments. It provides information about efficient tools available for effective data collection and meaningful behavior change. Beyond exploring a wide range of tools available for your use, it offers a comprehensive analysis of the decision-making process for increasing desirable behaviors, decreasing maladaptive behaviors, and examining your own behavior.

We’ll be sharing a tip from Sam and Val’s excellent Facebook page – ABA Tools of the Trade – with you every week so be sure to stay tuned.

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Tip of the Week: Use a Time-Out Ribbon

Time-out can be an effective procedure for addressing behaviors that do not function for escape. However, often it can be difficult to implement, and in some schools is not even allowed. There are valid concerns related to time-out. For example, you may not have the opportunity to supervise a child in a separate location for time-out, or you might want to keep them in the same place so they don’t miss a lesson during class.

The time-out ribbon may be an excellent solution for just those types of instances. When Foxx and Shapiro (1978) first wrote about the time-out ribbon, they referred to it as “nonexclusionary time-out,” meaning the individual does not have to be excluded from an environment or activity to be “in time-out.” In their initial study, all students wore a ribbon on their wrist. When the individual has the time-out ribbon on, they have access to socially-mediated reinforcement. If the time-out ribbon is removed, they do not have access to that reinforcement. (Foxx & Shapiro also note that it does not have to be a ribbon, but could be anything that is easy to wear and easy to remove.) However, by again demonstrating appropriate behavior, the ribbon can be placed again on the individual’s wrist.

In a time where we often focus on new, high tech solutions, such as the use of iPads or SmartBoards to introduce behavior change procedures, it’s important to draw attention to low-tech solutions that are easy to implement. Another aspect of the time-out ribbon that is attractive for our particular population is that it provides a clear visual indication that reinforcement is available.

A possible drawback is that, in a classroom setting, if the ribbon is removed, the student could continue to engage in disruptive behavior. Foxx and Shapiro emphasize the need to pair the ribbon with social reinforcement when first introducing it to the individual. This increases the likelihood that the individual will correct their behavior to earn the ribbon back.

Foxx & Shapiro demonstrated the effectiveness of the time-out ribbon with five boys with developmental disabilities. Since then, two more studies have demonstrated the efficacy of the procedure. We know that time-out can be highly effective from a wealth of research over recent decades, but if it’s not available, you should definitely consider the possible use of the time-out ribbon.

Further Reading

Alberto, P.A., Heflin, L.J., & Andrews, D. (2002). Use of the timeout ribbon procedure during community-based instruction. Behavior Modification, 26(2), 297-311.

Foxx, R.M. & Shapiro, S.T. (1978). The timeout ribbon: A nonexclusionary timeout procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 11(1), 125-136.

Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J. & Poling, A. (2001). The abative effect: A new term to describe the action of antecedents that reduce operant responding. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 18, 101-104.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Pick of the Week: NEW! Function Wheels – A Behavioral Identification and Intervention System

We’re absolutely thrilled to introduce Function Wheels, an easy-to-use system that enables users to identify the function of behavior and immediately intervene. Created and piloted by Keith Amerson, MSEd, Different Roads to Learning is a proud partner in bringing you the first all-inclusive, systematic approach for identifying the functions of problem behaviors and implementing research-based interventions to manage them.

Get your kit today at the introductory price of $149.95 through July 31st! No promo code necessary.

Click to enlarge.

Be sure to check out this nifty video below for a more in-depth look at the Function Wheels Kit!

Pick of the Week: Visual Task Completion Schedules

Keep students on track with these handy visual task completion schedules! This week, you can save 15%* on the Task Completion Schedule and the Flip When Finished Schedule. Just enter promo code SCHED15 at check-out to redeem your savings!

The Task Completion Schedule features clear “X” symbols to show a task has been completed. Simply take one of the Velcro “X” symbols and place it over the image of a task to show that it is completed. This black loop schedule also comes with a removable pocket to hold the 6 finished symbols, which have hook fasteners on their ends to attach to the schedule over the pictures. The Task Completion Schedule measures 28″ x 4″.

The Flip When Finished Schedule contains detachable clear pockets to keep students on track with their tasks. Simply flip the picture over when a task is complete or to reveal a new task. This schedule can be hung horizontally or vertically against a wall or board. Includes eight 3.5″ x 3.5″ pockets with one clear side with its reverse colored vinyl. A hook strip on top of both sides keeps it stuck to the loop schedule. The Flip When Finished Schedule measures 34″ x 4″.

Don’t forget to save 15%* this week on the Task Completion Schedule and the Flip When Finished Schedule when you enter in promo code SCHED15 at check-out!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on July 14th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Tip of the Week: Improving Behavior for the Whole Class

Often, we focus on how to improve the behavior of an individual, but there are many times in which teachers must figure out a way to improve the behavior of the entire class. In ABA, we might implement a group contingency, a strategy in which reinforcement for the whole group is based upon the behavior of one or more people within the group meeting a performance criterion (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Group contingencies can be especially beneficial for teachers because it may not always be possible to implement a contingency for an individual or there may be several students who need improvement with the same behavior. It’s also a useful strategy for individuals who respond well to peer influence. Furthermore, there are several studies that demonstrate the group contingencies can increase positive social interactions within a group.

Let’s look at examples of each type of contingency. In the first type, a dependent group contingency, reinforcement for all members of the group depends on the behavior of a single person within the group or a small group of people within the group. For example, you might say, “If Joseph remains in his seat for all of math, we will have five extra minutes of recess today.” This can be highly motivating for Joseph, because his peers will respond well to him if he earns them access to five more minutes of recess (leading some to call it the “hero procedure” because the individual is viewed so positively upon earning the reward.) It’s clear that if you have a student who is not motivated by social reinforcement from peers, this type of contingency would backfire. However, there is plenty of research that shows it’s benefits. (Allen, Gottselig, & Boylan, 1982; Gresham, 1983; Kerr & Nelson, 2002)

In the second type, an independent group contingency, criterion for accessing reinforcement is presented to everyone, but only the individuals who meet criterion earn the reinforcer. For example, you might say “If you remain in your seat for all of math class, you will earn five extra minutes of recess today.” In this contingency, every student who reaches criterion accesses the extra recess time, but those students who left their seat do not earn the extra five minutes. Another example might be, “Each person who turns in all homework earns two bonus points on their spelling test.” In this set up, the entire class is working towards a common goal, but the individuals who achieve the goal earn reinforcement no matter how their peers perform.

In the third type, an interdependent group contingency, reinforcement for all members of the group depends on the behavior of each member of the group meeting a performance criterion. Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace put it very well when they wrote “Independent group contingencies involve treating the members of a group as if they were a single behaving entity. The behavior of the group is reinforced contingent on the collective achievement of its members” (2014). In many classrooms there some type of independent group contingency in place, such as earning behavior points per class period or keeping your name on the green light (with yellow and red lights indicating problematic behaviors.) It’s quite simple to add an interdependent group contingency to these systems already in place. For example, you might say, “If all students names are still on the green light at the end of math, everyone earns an extra five minutes of recess.” There is evidence that interdependent group contingencies promote cooperation within groups (Poplin & Skinner, 2003; Salend & Sonnenschein, 1989).

Group contingencies are an excellent tool for classroom teachers, as well as anyone else working to manage a group of individuals.


Allen, Gottselig, & Boylan. (1982). A practical mechanism for using free time as a reinforcer in the classroom. Education and Treatment of Children, 5(4), 347-353.

Cooper, Heron, & Heward. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis – 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs; NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gresham, F.M. (1983). Use of a home-based dependent group contingency system in controlling destructive behavior: A case study. School Psychology Review, 12(2), 195-199.

Kerr, M.M. & Nelson, C.M. (2002). Strategies for addressing behavior problems in the classroom (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace. (2014). Behavior Analysis for Lasting Change (3rd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Popkin, J. & Skinner, C. (2003). Enhancing academic performance in a classroom serving students with serious emotional disturbance: Interdependent group contingencies with randomly selected components. School Psychology Review, 32(2), 282-296.

Salend, S.J., & Sonnenschein, P. (1989). Validating the effectiveness of a cooperative learning strategy through direct observation. Journal of School Psychology, 27, 47-58.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

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