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Differential Reinforcement (DRI) In ABA

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior is a plan that detects and counters behaviors that are deemed inappropriate, particularly in children.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 15, 2023
min read

What Is Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior in ABA Therapy?

In ABA therapy, differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior is a plan that detects and counters behaviors that are deemed inappropriate, particularly in children.

Multiple techniques exist that have been used in the administration of differential reinforcement.

However, the result has never changed, which is to motivate preferred behavior by reducing reinforcement altogether.

The idea of differential reinforcement centers on an understanding of people and how they repeat rewarded behaviors, and that the chances of behaviors that aren't reinforced are reduced.

Within Applied Behavior Analysis exists many techniques to help develop good behavior in patients. One that's highly important is differential reinforcement. It consists of two main duties.

The first is to give reinforcement so that the preferred behavior is shown. The second is reducing such behavior that's targeted. In writing, it's more complicated than applied in praxis.

Differential reinforcement is often used to lower maladaptive behavior as well, though more often done so that preferred behaviors are increased in patients.

In the practice of differential reinforcement, the parents of a child wouldn't discourage their behavior deemed negative but would encourage that viewed as positive. Through the withholding of reinforcement of their unwanted behavior, it reduces to no longer present.

Types of Differential Reinforcement

The following are the five primary types of differential reinforcement:

  • DRA of alternative behavior
  • DRO of other behavior
  • DRH of higher rates of behavior
  • DRL of lower rates of behavior
  • DRI of incompatible behavior

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior, or DRA

DRA application reduces behaviors viewed as negative by reinforcing alternative behaviors shown as appropriate.

It starts with the administrator detecting the behavior's functionalities, whereby they pick a behavior that gives the child an identical reinforcer. This serves as a difficult behavior that must be reinforced.

When a therapist sees a child that bites on their clothing and the reinforced behavior is pinpointed through the senses, they can give an alternative activity for them to do. In this situation, it could involve them chewing on something appropriate.

Additionally, more forms of reinforcement might be needed that are entirely unrelated to the initial one. This is best done in the beginning to help push them to pick something that's given in front of the closing they were biting on. This can be praise, candy, or a simple pat on the back.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior, or DRO

DRO reinforces the unavailability of behavior that's targeted.

It's easier for therapists to get started with since it doesn't involve any effort to reinforce individual behavior. It works by the practitioner reinforcing the finale of an interval that didn't exhibit any behaviors that are targeted.

Since reinforcement is done through the unavailability of unwanted behavior, pinpointing its function isn't necessary.

DRO can be used for behaviors during situations where the therapist hasn't fully identified its functionality.

There are some negatives to using DRO. Since one or more behaviors are the focus, it may without intent reinforce other negative behaviors. Regardless, DRO remains a useful tool to lower poor behavior, especially in ABA therapy.

In another example, a therapist is working with a child that displays aggressive reactions. The function isn't entirely clear since the child soon exhibits it randomly when different situations spring up. As such, functional analysis can't be relied upon. Their behavior generally happens about three times every hour, on average.

With a timed interval of 15 minutes, the therapist makes a note of each instance where it goes off without any aggression being shown. Reinforcement is given immediately.

If the child does exhibit aggression, the timer is reset again. The purpose is for the child to receive reinforcement when they show any behavior besides the one that's challenging, even if the alternatives are challenging as well.

Differential Reinforcement of Higher Rates of Behavior, or DRH

DRH reinforces through increments, increasing the rate of the targeted behavior. It's useful for patients that display specific behaviors at a low rate.

In this example of DRH, when a student shows the teacher their hand to answer a question, even while knowing 100% what the actual answer is. The teacher uses DRH to reinforce the likelihood of more students raising their hands. After calculating the first student's baseline, the teacher acknowledges the student three times within a set period.

After a while, the teacher responds to the student, whereby the standard increases after the three-time hand raise.

DRH is useful when the patient or client understands how an activity or task is carried out, yet doesn't carry it out quickly enough to see natural reinforcement take place. This activity assists in building proficiency and self-assurance in the learner.

Other areas where DRH is shown to be effective are as follows:

  • A student walking in a similar fashion and speed as the other students around them
  • Finishing off homework problems
  • Place designated boxes in specific areas in a warehouse

Differential Reinforcement of Lower Rates of Behavior, or DRL

DRL is almost the same as DRH, with the difference that behavioral rates are lowered at a slower, more gradual pace. It's useful for behaviors that should be mitigated by not entirely done away with.

For instance, when a patient says hello to people that come near to them, including if they pass by again within a short timeframe. The rate of hellos occurs ten times every five minutes.

The therapist sets the reinforcement goal at eight times of saying hello every five minutes. Once the criteria are attained, a new one is set, one that's significantly more feasible. In this sense, DRL is best carried out when behaviors are to be lowered, but not eliminated.

What Is an Example of DRI in ABA?

An example of DRI in ABA is when an ABA therapist works with a small child that physically strikes another behavior technician when they're given a command.

The therapist concludes that the behavior lingers from the child wanting a temporary escape from an issue that's hard for them to work with.

From this, the therapist decides to reinforce the student when they refuse work, having them write out single words that are the opposite of hitting. This is done when the child hits a therapist.

Alternatively, the therapist can give an option of escape by providing them with the answer to a question when work is done. Simultaneously, the therapist can offer praise, give candy, or a token of some sort when incompatible behavior is shown.

What is DRI in Autism?

DRI in Autism is done through reinforcing behaviors that cannot happen when unwanted behavior occurs.

When a therapist needs a child to stay seated, though they sometimes get up. Every time that the student gets up, their behavior is ignored the next day. Yet when they do stay in their seat, the teacher rewards them with a treat, praise, or access to something that the child likes.


  1. https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/what-is-meant-by-differential-reinforcement-in-the-context-of-applied-behavior-analysis/
  2. https://www.parentingforbrain.com/differential-reinforcement/
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html
steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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