An Approachable Guide to Differential Reinforcement

By Morgan van Diepen, M.Ed., BCBA, co-founder of ABA Visualized

When it comes to teaching behavior strategies, reinforcement is one of the fundamental tools we use to encourage learners to develop new skills. Reinforcement can take various forms, such as praise, stickers, breaks, toys, or even homework passes. However, amid the importance of this strategy, there is often confusion surrounding different approaches, not to mention the jargon that comes with it – DRA, DRI, DRO – no wonder it can feel overwhelming!

Let’s demystify the concept of “differential reinforcement” and discuss when to use each type!

Differential reinforcement is a method of providing varying levels of recognition and rewards based on the behaviors we want to promote. In simpler terms, we adjust our responses to encourage learners to display certain skills more frequently. Let’s illustrate this with an example:

Imagine we are teaching a child to tie their shoes. Usually, they need a lot of support, but today they make an extraordinary effort to do it independently. In such a scenario, we can show more excitement in our celebrations and grant them extra playtime outside as a special reward for their progress. On days when they display less independent effort, we may show less excitement. Effort = Reward!

Similarly, in a school setting, consider a student who requires frequent reminders to stay on task. If they ask for a break, we could give them a short, two-minute break. However, if they have demonstrated exceptional focus and then requested a break, we might grant them a longer, five-minute break as a reward for their extra effort. The idea is that by adjusting our celebrations, we are encouraging more independence in new skills!

To dive a bit deeper, there are different types of differential reinforcement: Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA), Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI), and Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO). While all this jargon can be confusing, it’s essential that behavior experts understand these concepts and when to use each one, as they each have their own unique benefits.

Let’s look at what each of these approaches would look like for one scenario: a learner who struggles with sharing and often grabs items from others, occasionally also hitting or pinching them (with the function of access).

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)

In DRA, we are aiming to build a behavior that is a better way for them to access or express their wants and needs. This behavior matches the function of the challenging behavior, meaning it’s just a better way for them to get what they want or need. In a DRA, we are often recognizing their engagement in communication skills like asking for help, a break, space, more time, items/activities, or attention by rewarding them with exactly what they asked for. In this scenario, when the learner asks for a turn, we recognize and reward his use of communication by allowing him to have a turn. Reminder: always individualize expectations based on your learner’s communication mode!

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

In DRI, we are aiming to build a behavior of a specific expectation. This often involves tolerating something they may not particularly want to do, but need to do, including going to school, taking turns, completing assignments, keeping hands to self, and following directions. The team will choose one specific behavior to build and then determine a reward that the learner can earn for engaging in this expected behavior. The reward can be anything that’s motivating! In this scenario, even though the learner would rather being playing with the slime, he’s learning to share by waiting for his turn. When he waits for a certain amount of time, he earns the reward!

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

In DRO, our focus is on reducing the challenging behavior by rewarding times that it did not occur. The learner does not have to engage in any specific behavior to earn the reward, just refrain from the challenging behavior. First, determine how often the behavior is occurring and then create a schedule where the learner can earn a reward for going a specific amount of time (just less than their baseline) without engaging in the target challenging behavior. In this example, the learner was grabbing items and hitting his sister about every 20 minutes. The mom set up a schedule where every 15 minutes that he goes without grabbing/hitting, he earns a reward. Similar to DRI, the reward here can be anything that’s motivating! With this strategy, instead of recognizing and rewarding a specific skill (like requesting for a turn or waiting), we are rewarding the absence of challenging behaviors.

To choose which approach is best for your learner, identify the team’s priority goal!

  • Building communication/self-advocacy → Try DRA
  • Teaching tolerance → Try DRI
  • Maintaining safety → Try DRO

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to differential reinforcement. Each learner is unique, and behavior experts should tailor their strategies to suit individual needs and challenges. You might choose to start with one approach and transition to another once certain target skills have been developed successfully. For example, if a learner frequently has challenging behaviors when asked to transition off preferred items and they haven’t yet learned to ask for more time, DRA would be a great choice to recognize and reward this communication. But once they are consistently asking for more time, moving to a DRI where they learn to tolerate “no” would be an appropriate next step. By using a range of reinforcement options and gradually fading out rewards as skills improve, we can encourage faster progress and build better behaviors effectively.

At ABA Visualized, we are committed to making behavior expertise approachable and easy to understand. In addition to the visuals seen here, our 2nd Edition ABA Visualized Guidebook offers 27 evidence-based visual strategies that embody a compassionate approach to supporting learners, including a new chapter on specific strategies for inclusive classrooms! With brand-new strategies and reimagined classics, you can feel confident you are supporting learners with current best practices and compassion. We’ve also updated our collection of templates and tools to accommodate the use of the strategies, making this a truly comprehensive resource!

About the Author

Our mission at ABA Visualized is to make behavioral expertise approachable, accessible, and relatable. This has been our mission since our first publication in 2018 and continues to guide decisions in everything we do.

As a BCBA working abroad and then with the vibrant international community in Los Angeles, Morgan quickly developed a passion for supporting under-serviced families. She realized the recurring barriers affecting these communities and limiting their access to effective behavioral expertise: long waitlists to learn from expert service providers and an abundance of technical jargon-filled texts. Morgan began to refine her approach to better disseminate behavior strategies to those who truly need it: families and educators.

As an infographic designer, Morgan’s husband, Boudewijn (Bou), naturally understands how visual storytelling can make the unclear, clear and the unknown, known. In a true collaboration between Morgan and Bou’s skillset, their flagship product, the ABA Visualized Guidebook, was created utilizing step-by-step visuals and approachable language to accomplish that sought-after accessible behavior expertise.

Since this publication, ABA Visualized as a company has grown to offer a collection of books and trainings available worldwide. We aim to continue empowering others through approachable education on strategies that can make truly meaningful impacts on individuals’ lives.

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