Understanding Differential Reinforcement in ABA
Differential reinforcement is a broader term covering several approaches to adjusting maladaptive behaviors.
DRI (differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors) attempts to replace a problem target behavior with an adaptive behavior that cannot be performed at the same time.
DRA (differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors) rewards choosing alternative behaviors over a maladaptive behavior, although both could be performed at the same time.
DRO (differential reinforcement of other behavior) rewards the absence of the maladaptive behavior.
DRL (differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior) rewards lowered rates of maladaptive behaviors rather than seeking to extinguish the target behavior altogether.
Each of these has measurable outcomes, so an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist can use them to determine how much a client is benefitting from the treatment plan.
Differential Reinforcement Helps to Measure Behavioral Change in ABA Therapy
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy focuses on changing maladaptive behaviors, like socially isolating or yelling during a conversation, to adaptive behaviors, like engaging with friends and family more often.
ABA therapists receive professional certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), but therapists may use a range of techniques to support their clients, who are often children or adults on the autism spectrum. Different techniques may work better for certain clients, to improve their symptoms so they can lead independent, satisfying lives.
ABA therapists typically focus on positive reinforcement as a way of encouraging behavioral change. The goal is to turn an adaptive behavior, which the client may not like, into a positive experience so they are more likely to continue to perform the behavior.
There are several types of reinforcement that can occur during and outside ABA therapy. The concept of differential reinforcement was developed to understand how providing reinforcement for one behavior, while not providing reinforcement or withholding from another behavior, can cause behavioral change or stymy it.
There are different types of differential reinforcement that can be applied to the client’s natural environment in different ways. For children with autism, this can support their ability to take a new behavior and generalize it to other scenarios.
The 4 Types of Differential Reinforcement
1. Differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI): This approach to reinforcement uses a behavior that is “incompatible” with the targeted problem behavior. By causing a client to perform the incompatible behavior, they are unable to perform the problem behavior. Over time, this lowers the rates of that incompatible behavior. For example, if a child is drawing, they cannot also be chewing their fingernails.
2. Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors (DRA): This method involves removing a problem behavior by reinforcing the adaptive, alternative behavior. However, the adaptive behavior probably will not be incompatible with the targeted behavior, so theoretically, a child with autism could perform both behaviors at the same time. Ideally, the reward for the alternative behavior is high enough that the targeted behavior becomes less desirable or reinforced.
For example, a parent may request that their child pick up their toys in the living room instead of watching television. Theoretically, the child could still pay some attention to the television while picking up toys, but cleaning up their toys is the alternative behavior to just watching TV.
3. Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO): This approach rewards the child when they are not performing targeted behaviors rather than choosing alternatives to distract from the targeted behavior. For example, if a child bites their fingernails, their ABA therapist may reward them for every 10-second interval that they do not engage in this behavior. By doing this, the child may associate the lack of this targeted behavior with feeling good rather than the stimulation of the targeted behavior feeling good.
There are two subtypes of DRO. These are:
a. Interval, when reinforcement is given only after a specific amount of time passes.
b. Momentary, when reinforcement is given at a specific moment in time if the targeted behavior is not performed.
4. Differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (DRL): Like DRO, DRL involves a reward when a behavior does not occur, although DRL focuses on lower rates of targeted behaviors. Ultimately, by rewarding less frequent occurrences of the behavior, or less severe instances of the behavior, the ABA therapist hopes to keep target behaviors minimal enough that they are not disruptive to the person’s life and perhaps extinguish the behavior if possible.
There are three types of DRL.
a. Full session: Reinforcement is provided to the child only if the behavior was displayed at a rate deemed appropriate by the ABA therapist, for the entire therapy session.
b. Interval: As in DRO, reinforcement is provided if the behavior was displayed at or below appropriate levels for a specific amount of time.
c. Spaced responding: Reinforcement is given only after the behavior is displayed after a set amount of time has passed between the previous instance and the current instance of the behavior.
An example of DRL occurs when a child gets up and walks away from homework several times. The parent helping the child with their homework wants the child to feel like they can take breaks when necessary but needs to provide boundaries around what “necessary” means.
With guidance from an ABA therapist, the parent may tell the child that they can get up five times while they complete their homework. After that, they are not allowed to get up again.
Research Supports Differential Reinforcement
Each of these four types of differential reinforcement focuses on reducing or eliminating a target behavior, which is typically a maladaptive behavior. ABA therapists can use each of these types of differential reinforcement together in a treatment plan, but some types overlap more readily than others.
With DRA and DRI, targeted maladaptive behaviors decrease because there is reinforcement of adaptive behaviors and withholding of any type of reinforcement, including negative reinforcement, for the maladaptive behavior. This can be tricky and may require some analysis on the part of the ABA therapist to understand how the client interacts with teachers, parents, siblings, or caregivers.
For example, if a parent yells at a child to stop chewing on their fingernails, this may accidentally reinforce the maladaptive behavior through high emotional intensity, attention from the parent, or other factors. Instead, gently removing the hand from the child’s mouth can be the only attention paid to this activity. Then, the child may be distracted into using their hands for something else, which is a DRI technique, or rewarded for choosing a healthier alternative than chewing their fingernails, which is a DRA technique.
Scientific research shows that differential reinforcement tactics are evidence-based and do work to adjust behaviors to more adaptive actions. A study published in 2010 involving seven children with developmental disorders used DRA specifically, without an extinction component. The researchers adjusted the duration of the alternative behavior, the quality of the alternative behavior, the delay, and a combination of all three.
Behavior was often sensitive to manipulations, but the most important part of the study showed that several approaches to reinforcing the appropriate behavior helped to reduce the rate of the target behavior more often than one approach alone.
ABA Therapists Often Use Differential Reinforcement
Differential reinforcement is an important tool for ABA therapists. Using these techniques can help them monitor rates of behavioral change over time in an objective way. By dividing target behaviors up into timed or monitored instances, the ABA therapist can see if one or more of these interventions work to reduce maladaptive behaviors. Then, based on that information, they can understand if they must adjust their treatment plan.
Your child’s ABA therapist may already be using differential reinforcement in sessions. Ask the therapist how you can strengthen these lessons in your everyday interactions with your child.
If your child’s therapist isn’t using this methodology with your child, open up a conversation about it. Differential reinforcement could be an approach that benefits your child.
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Differential Reinforcement Procedures of Other Behavior (DRO). (2013). Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Differential Reinforcement Procedures of Alternative Behavior (DRA/DRAlt) of Incompatible Behavior (DRI). (2013). Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders.
An Investigation of Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior Without Extinction. (2010). Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.
Using Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates to Reduce Children’s Requests for Teacher Attention. (December 2010). Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.
Application of ABA Principles to General Communication Instruction. (May 2001). Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities.
A Comparison of Differential Reinforcement Procedures for Treating Automatically Reinforced Behavior. (April 2019). Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.