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What is Differential Reinforcement?

What is Differential ReinforcementThere are various strategies that educators, ABA therapists, and even parents use to increase or decrease target behaviors—and one of those is called differential reinforcement. Even though it is most commonly used in settings with children, it can also be used in the workplace or other special situations. The importance of using this is very high when working with children with autism, as some of their behaviors can be inappropriate, disruptive, or harmful and need to be modified quickly. 

In general, reinforcement is a way to get someone else to modify their behavior. This is achieved by either adding something to the environment or by taking something away. As such, there are two types of general reinforcement:

●    Positive reinforcement: This happens when something is added to the environment after the wanted behavior occurs, such as obtaining a sticker on a sticker chart when a child raises their hand instead of calling out. 

●    Negative reinforcement: This happens when something is taken away from the environment after the desired behavior occurs to increase its likelihood in the future. An example of this is if a student completes 20 minutes of work appropriately, work demands get taken away for the following 10 minutes. 

Note that the goal for both positive and negative reinforcement is to increase desired behaviors and are not considered consequences or punishments. 

More specifically, differential reinforcement is a strategy used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) to address challenging or undesirable behavior, usually in children. While there are several techniques used in differential reinforcement, the goal is always the same: to encourage appropriate behavior by giving or withholding reinforcement.

The theory behind differential reinforcement is that people tend to repeat behaviors that are reinforced or rewarded and are less likely to continue behaviors that aren’t reinforced (ABAedu.org). 

Differential reinforcement consists of two components:

● Reinforcing an appropriate behavior

● Withholding reinforcement of the inappropriate behavior

Types of Differential Reinforcement 

All differential reinforcement has the same purpose and the same goal; however, there are various circumstances in which adults will reinforce a child and specific ways in which they will do so. 

The following information about these types come from Evidence-Based Instructional Practices for Young Children with Autism and Other Disabilities as well as Applied Behavioral Analysis Edu

1. Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)

In this type there are two steps: The adult will withhold reinforcement for inappropriate behavior and will reinforce a more appropriate one. 

A simple example of this in an education setting is if little Johnny tends to elope from the classroom when it is time for math. In this case, the teacher will want to block the door if safe, and if Johnny does get out, once he comes back to class, he is given his math work immediately. He will not be allowed to escape from work demands. 

For the second step of DRA, the teacher will begin to teach Johnny an alternative behavior aside from eloping. Johnny can ask for a break, he can flip a break card over on his desk, he can work for x amount of minutes then earn a break for x amount of minutes, etc. In these cases, Johnny’s reinforcement is earning a small break by engaging in more appropriate behaviors. 

When using DRA, adults must explicitly teach the child the alternative or replacement behavior and must continue to practice it often. Reinforcement must be given consistently for it to work effectively. 

2. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

This type of reinforcement is very similar to DRA, although adults should use DRI when a child engages in inappropriate and appropriate behavior simultaneously. 

A perfect example of this is if Johnny has the habit of raising his hand while calling out; the teacher will want Johnny to learn to raise his hand without calling out at the same time. An alternative behavior that Johnny can learn is to raise one hand in the air while placing a finger over his mouth like a “shhhh, quiet” sign instead of speaking. Each time Johnny continues to call out, the teacher will ignore him even if his hand is raised. He will only be reinforced (however the teacher chooses to) when he raises his hand without calling out. 

3. Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

This type of reinforcement is a bit different in that the adult will choose a time interval to use when providing a reinforcement. Any reinforcement is withheld for inappropriate behavior like in DRA and DRI, but the reinforcement for appropriate behavior is given for any other behavior in a specific time. 

For example, a teacher is having difficulty with Johnny during morning chores in that he walks around the classroom and disturbs other students working on their chores instead of doing his. When using DRO, the teacher will set a timer for x amount of minutes (let’s say one minute) and when the timer goes off, if Johnny is working on his chores appropriately and not disturbing other students, he will get a School Store Buck. If the task is still taking place, the teacher will reset the timer and go again. If the timer goes off and Johnny is wandering around or bugging another student, obviously he will not be reinforced. 

This type of differential reinforcement can be very tedious and time consuming if there are not enough adults in the classroom and someone who can manage the timer as well as provide the reinforcement. Another pitfall of DRO is “if you provide reinforcement only when your interval timer beeps (i.e., momentary DRO), you are not addressing any challenging behavior that occurs while the timer is still ticking.”

4. Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (DRL)

Lastly, DRL is a type in which the engaged behavior isn’t necessarily inappropriate but the frequency is an issue. The specific example that Applied Behavioral Analysis Edu gives on their site is:

A child who repeatedly washes his hands before lunch. In this case, the teacher wants the child to wash his hands, but not more than once before lunch. Using DRL, the teacher would reward the child by allowing him to be first in line to lunch if he avoids washing his hands more than once.

Adults who are using differential reinforcement should become trained explicitly on these types, the scenarios in which they can use them, and how to differentiate between when to use one versus another. Using reinforcements incorrectly may cause unwanted outcomes or backtrack in desired behaviors. 

When used correctly, consistently, and by adults who know them well, differential reinforcement can work wonders in the classroom and even in the home or workplace to modify behavior. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

May 2020

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