Tip of the Week: DRA and DRO – Differential Reinforcement Tools for Behavioral Change

Recently we’ve been delving into different types of differential reinforcement. We’ve taken a look at why differential reinforcement is valuable as well as how to use DRI. Today, we’ll look at two more that are closely related: Differential Reinforcement of Alternative behavior (DRA) and Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior (DRO).

DRA is “a procedure for decreasing problem behavior in which reinforcement is delivered for a behavior that serves as a desirable alternative to the behavior targeted for reduction and withheld following instances of the problem behavior (e.g., reinforcing completion of academic worksheet items when the behavior targeted for reduction is talk-outs)” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). The key thing to remember here is if you are implementing a DRA, a specified alternative behavior has been selected for reinforcement.

For example, Miss Watson wants her students to stop calling out answers. She decides she will not reinforce students calling out. In her situation, this means that if a student calls out she will not provide them with any attention, including reminders not to call out. She is going to reinforce the alternative behavior of raising your hand. This is a very common use of DRA, and it works well.

In another example, Lisa’s daughter often cries when she doesn’t get what she has asked for. Sometimes this results in attention, and sometimes it results in Lisa finally giving in and providing the item. Lisa decides to use DRA to address this behavior. With this intervention, any time that her daughter says “Okay” instead of crying when refused an item, Lisa provides reinforcement in the form of attention or playing with a different item than was requested.

DRO is quite similar. It is “a procedure for decreasing problem behavior in which reinforcement is contingent on the absence of the problem behavior during or at specific times” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). With DRO, you would reinforce any behavior that wasn’t the behavior targeted for change.

For example, Mrs. Cuthbert notices that Anne is staring out the window frequently during lass. She decides to implement DRO. She sets a MotivAider for 5 minute intervals. Each time the MotivAider buzzes, she looks up and if Anne is doing any behavior other than staring out the window, Mrs. Cuthbert provides reinforcement. (There are two ways to implement DRO, which we’ll get to in a future post.)

DRO is especially beneficial because it is widely applicable, relatively rapid, and often durable and general (Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace, 2014). However, you should be aware that you may run the risk of reinforcing other unwanted behavior. It can also make you focus on the “negative,” since you’re always looking for the problem behavior or the absence of the problem behavior (as opposed to a specific desired behavior, as in DRA.)
DRA and DRO are useful tools to add to your arsenal of behavior change tools. You may be wondering why it’s important to consider the differences between DRI, DRA, and DRO. The key to remember is that using these terms and understanding the possible strategies for reinforcement improves your implementation of interventions and your communication with other adults implementing those interventions.


Cooper J.O, Heron T.E, Heward W.L. Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson; 2007

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


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.