Differential Reinforcement: A Complete Guide

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has many tools in the toolbox for improving behavior but one of the most important is reinforcement, including differential reinforcement. Differential reinforcement relies on 2 primary components, providing reinforcement for desired behavior and withholding reinforcement for target behavior. Sounds simple, right? It’s actually a bit more complicated, but the fundamentals really are simple. Although differential reinforcement is commonly used to reduce maladaptive behavior, adept practitioners also use this strategy to strengthen desired behaviors.

Differential reinforcement (DR) is an intervention that reinforces one topography of behavior while putting all other responses on extinction. Five main varieties offer options for behaviors to reinforce:

  1. DRO-Differential reinforcement of other behavior
  2. DRA-Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior
  3. DRI-Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior
  4. DRL-Differential reinforcement of lower rates of behavior
  5. DRH-Differential reinforcement of higher rates of behavior

It can be difficult to keep these procedures straight. Download the free resource below for a reference.

Understanding Differential Reinforcement download


An important component of differential reinforcement is extinction. In Applied Behavior Analysis, withholding reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior is called extinction. Often these behaviors have been unintentionally reinforced and extinction is implemented to reduce challenging behaviors. The challenging behavior should not receive reinforcement.

Although extinction is a common component of DR procedures, there are some risks associated with its use. Take our course Ethics of the Use of Extinction in Differential Reinforcement Procedures to learn more and earn 2 ethics CEUs!

Types of Differential Reinforcement

There are several types of differential reinforcement (DR) procedures that address a variety of behavior. Although DR interventions are commonly used to reduce challenging behavior, they can also be used to increase desired behaviors. Karsten and Carr (2009) compared 2 DR procedures on their impact on skill acquisition. The authors found that differentially reinforcing unprompted responses may lead to more rapid skill acquisition.

The variations in DR interventions described below are distinguished by which behaviors receive reinforcement or when reinforcement is delivered. Understanding when and how to provide reinforcement determines the success of the procedure.

Watch the video below for an overview of differential reinforcement.

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA) procedures reduce a problematic behavior by reinforcing an appropriate alternative behavior that serves the same function. Begin by identifying the likely function of the behavior, then choose a behavior that earns the child the same reinforcer as the challenging behavior to reinforce.

If you work with a child who consistently chews on his shirt and you identify that the behavior is reinforced by direct access to a sensory experience, provide an appropriate alternative item for him to chew on. In addition to providing this item, you may need to provide some additional, unrelated form of reinforcement, especially in the beginning, to encourage him to choose the item you provide over his shirt. This might be praise, an edible, or even an unrelated tangible reinforcer.

Here’s another example: You work with a child who has begun to swear. You identify that this behavior is maintained by socially mediated access to attention from his peers. You can implement a DRA procedure that reinforces joke telling which will serve the same function as swearing.

In the examples above, the behavior reinforced is an appropriate alternative behavior that serves the same function of the challenging behavior. If the procedure

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI) procedures are similar to DRA procedures; however, the behavior you choose is incompatible with the problem behavior. For a behavior to be incompatible, the child cannot perform the chosen action and the problem behavior at the same time. Again, the behavior you select to reinforce should serve the same function as the problem behavior.

Consider this example: You work with a child who hits his supervising adult when he is asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. You determine that this behavior is maintained by socially mediated escape from a relatively difficult task. You decide to reinforce writing the word “help” on a dry erase board when he doesn’t want to do his work. Writing the word “help” is incompatible with hitting. You can provide him with an escape from the difficult task by giving him the answer or part of the answer and you can also offer an additional reinforcer (i.e. praise, an edible, tickles, access to a preferred activity, a token, etc.) for selecting the incompatible behavior.

To learn more about the difference between DRA and DRI, read our article: What is the Difference Between DRA and DRI?

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO) procedures reinforce the absence of the target behavior. This procedure is easy to implement because you aren’t looking to reinforce a specific behavior, rather you provide reinforcement at the end of an interval that was free of the target behavior. Because you are reinforcing the absence of the challenging behavior, it’s not necessary that you accurately identify the function of the behavior. Use DRO for those behaviors that are multiply maintained or where you have been unsuccessful in identifying the function.

Although this procedure is simple, there are significant disadvantages as well. Because you target one behavior or class of behaviors, you often inadvertently reinforce other challenging behaviors. Despite this concern, DRO procedures can be highly effective in reducing significantly challenging behaviors. Check out this example:

You work with a child who often becomes aggressive. It’s unclear what the function is because he appears to engage in the behavior at random times across a variety of situations. The behavior typically occurs several times (approximately 3x) per hour. You decide to implement DRO on a 15 minute interval (just under the baseline rate of behavior). You set the timer for 15 minutes. Each time the timer goes off without the occurrence of aggression, your client receives reinforcement. If your client engages in aggression, the interval is immediately reset at 15 minutes.

In this example, the only time that the interval will be reset is if aggression occurs. This means that your client may receive reinforcement after engaging in any other behavior, including other undesired behaviors such as screaming, flopping or having a tantrum. You must decide if the benefits of DRO for your client outweigh this possibility.

Get more information about DRO in our article: What You Need to Know About DRO.

Differential Reinforcement of Higher Rates of Behavior (DRH)

Sometimes clients engage in a desirable behavior at a rate far below what we want to see. Using Differential Reinforcement of Higher Rates of Behavior (DRH) systematically reinforces incremental increases in the rate of that behavior. Take a look at this example:

Your client seldom raises his hand in class to answer a question, especially during math block, even though he often knows the correct answer. You decide to use DRH to reinforce a higher rate of hand raising. When you calculate his baseline rate, you get 2/45 minute math block so you set your first criteria at 3. You provide reinforcement if he raises his hand to respond to questions at least 3 times during that block of time. Over time, as he becomes successful, you gradually increase the criteria he needs to meet to achieve reinforcement.

Differential Reinforcement of Lower Rates of Behavior (DRL)

Differential Reinforcement of Lower Rates of Behavior (DRL) procedures are similar to DRH procedures except you reinforce gradually decreasing rates of behavior. This intervention is ideal for a behavior you want to reduce but not eliminate. For example:

Your client says “hi” to everyone she sees, even if she has said “hi” to them in the last 5 minutes. You calculate her baseline responding at 10x/5 minutes. In order to ensure success, you set the initial criteria to achieve reinforcement at 8x/5 minutes. Over time, as she reaches this criteria, you establish new criteria that help her approach a more sustainable rate.

Austin and Bevin (2011) used DRL to reduce the requests for teacher attention of 3 students in primary grades. Not only was the intervention effective, but the teacher found the intervention highly acceptable. Gaining the buy-in (social validity) of the interventionist directly impacts the success of interventions.

To learn more about DRL read our post Use DRL to Reduce Behaviors, Not Eliminate Them.

Differential reinforcement infographic
Type of Differential ReinforcementWhat to ReinforceApplications
DRAA functionally-equivalent alternative behaviorWidely applicable for reducing maladaptive behavior
DRIA functionally-equivalent incompatible behaviorWidely applicable for reducing maladaptive behavior, used to differentially reinforce independent responding
DROThe absence of the target behaviorUseful in reducing potentially dangerous behavior
DRHBehavior occurring at a rate above a pre-determined minimum rateUseful in increasing the rate of desired behaviors that are in a learner’s repertoire but occur too infrequently
DRLBehavior occurring at a rate below a pre-determined maximum behaviorAdjusting the rate of appropriate behavior that occurs too frequently

Test Your Knowledge

Follow this choose-your-own-adventure style video to test your understanding of differential reinforcement procedures. Can you help Amanda, a new BCBA choose the right procedure?

Other Uses for Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement has a wide range of applications. Any time you want to value one behavior over another, you can use a differential reinforcement procedure without extinction.

For example, if you are working with a client who responds to questions correctly, but often does so slowly, you can differentially reinforce more rapid responses over slower responses. If he often takes 10s to respond correctly, you can provide a stronger reinforcer for any response within 5s. If you’re using a token economy system, you can provide 2 tokens for rapid responding and only 1 token for a correct response. This type of procedure reduces frustration on your client’s part over not providing any reinforcement for slow responding.

Important Considerations

Any time you use an extinction procedure, be aware that you will likely experience an extinction burst. This means the behavior will likely get worse before it gets better.

Extinction burst in children with autism

When dealing with intense or potentially dangerous behaviors, be cautious when choosing an extinction procedure. Make sure that you have a plan for keeping everyone safe if behaviors escalate to dangerous levels. Ensure you have the competence to implement this procedure or organize appropriate supervision.

Extinction may not be a practical intervention in all situations. If, after careful consideration, you determine that you can’t risk an extinction burst, consider using the matching law by offering a less potent reinforcer for the challenging behavior and a very strong reinforcer for the alternative behavior. For example, if attention maintains the challenging behavior, provide a quiet reprimand for inappropriate behavior and extended attention for alternative behaviors.

Borrero and Volmer (2002) found that behavior occurred at rates proportional to the rate of reinforcement for both problem and appropriate behavior during differential reinforcement procedures. This important research offers an alternative to the potential risky extinction procedures common when implementing DR.

Ethics of the use of extinction in differential reinforcement procedures

Functions of Behavior

An important key to several types of differential reinforcement is identifying the function of the undesired behavior. All behavior occurs because it works for the individual. Either the learner gets something they want (a tangible, attention, or a sensory experience) or escapes something they don’t want (a demand, attention, or an unpleasant sensory experience). Your differential reinforcement procedure depends on correctly identifying the function of the maladaptive behavior.

Be sure to read out post Functions of Behavior to learn more about identifying the functions of behavior. This post also provides a free download with helpful examples.

Download the Complete Guide

Find more details and examples of differential reinforcement in our complete guide, Differential Reinforcement: A practical guide to using DR, available on Teacher’s Pay Teachers.

References and Further Reading

Athens, E. S., & Vollmer, T. R. (2010). An investigation of differential reinforcement of alternative behavior without extinctionJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis43(4), 569-589.

Austin, J. L., & Bevan, D. (2011). Using differential reinforcement of low rates to reduce children’s requests for teacher attention. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis44(3), 451-461.

Borrero, J. C., & Vollmer, T. R. (2002). An application of the matching law to severe problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis35(1), 13-27.

Chowdhury, M., & Benson, B. A. (2011). Use of differential reinforcement to reduce behavior problems in adults with intellectual disabilities: A methodological reviewResearch in Developmental Disabilities32(2), 383-394.

Karsten, A. M., & Carr, J. E. (2009). The effects of differential reinforcement of unprompted responding on the skill acquisition of children with autismJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis42(2), 327-334.

Myerson, J., & Hale, S. (1984). Practical implications of the matching lawJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis17(3), 367-380.

Petscher, E. S., & Bailey, J. S. (2008). Comparing main and collateral effects of extinction and differential reinforcement of alternative behaviorBehavior Modification32(4), 468-488.

Trosclair‐Lasserre, N. M., Lerman, D. C., Call, N. A., Addison, L. R., & Kodak, T. (2008). Reinforcement magnitude: An evaluation of preference and reinforcer efficacy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis41(2), 203-220.

Ward‐Horner, J. C., Pittenger, A., Pace, G., & Fienup, D. M. (2014). Effects of reinforcer magnitude and distribution on preference for work schedulesJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis47(3), 623-627.