Tip of the Week: Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior

In a recent post, I talked about Skinner’s emphasis on differential reinforcement. Today, we are going to take a closer look at Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior (DRI). DRI is defined as “a procedure for decreasing problem behavior in which reinforcement is delivered for a behavior that is topographically incompatible with the behavior targeted for reduction and withheld following instances of the problem behavior (e.g., sitting in seat is incompatible with walking around the room) (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Let’s look at a few examples of DRI in action:

  • Mrs. Clark is teaching a classroom with six students with autism. One of her students has recently begun to pinch his arms. She takes data on the behavior and discovers that it functions for attention. (When he pinches his arms, she or a teacher’s aid comes over and tells him “no pinching.”) She decided to implement an intervention that utilizes DRI. She teaches him how to sit with his hands intertwined on his desk. This is an incompatible behavior with pinching because he is not able to pinch while his hands are intertwined. She and the teacher’s aid reinforce him for intertwining his hands (come over and tell him, “great job” or “I like how you’re sitting”) and do not provide attention when he engages in arm pinching.
  • Carly has a 9-year-old daughter. When her daughter wants a break from doing homework, she reaches over and hits Carly’s arm. Carly typically says, “Do you need a break now?” Then, she allows her to take a five-minute break. Carly recognized that her daughter’s intensity with hitting seemed to be increasing, and she was worried she might get hurt. She decided to implement an intervention that utilized DRI. She put a timer on the table within her daughter’s reach, and taught her daughter to touch the timer when she wanted a break. This is an incompatible behavior because her daughter cannot simultaneously touch the timer and hit Carly. When Carly’s daughter touched the timer, she immediately received a break. When she hit Carly, she did not receive a break. This was an especially useful intervention because, over time, Carly taught her daughter to set the timer on her own and become more independent with managing break times.
  • Mr. Holley teaches a preschool class. During circle time, many of his students become very excited and can be quite loud. Sometimes it seems as though all of his students are yelling at the same time. Once they become too loud, it is very challenging to regain their attention. He decides to implement an intervention utilizing DRI. He uses a decibel meter on his tablet (such as the app Too Noisy). He teaches the students that when the noise level is below a certain number or threshold they all earn stickers. This is differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior because the children cannot possibly speak loudly and softly simultaneously.

DRI is not always the best option. For example, it may be very challenging to come up with an incompatible behavior. Or, in the case of self-injurious or aggressive behavior, it may be dangerous to use such an intervention.

If you do use DRI, you may consider explicitly telling your learner(s) that you are implementing this new plan, such as Mr. Holley did in the third example above. And remember, this is only one form of differential reinforcement. If DRI is not appropriate for your situation, there are definitely still options for reinforcing appropriate behavior in an effective and efficient manner.


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis – 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


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.