What is the Difference Between DRA and DRI?

Differential reinforcement (DR) is a cornerstone in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In its most simplest form, when using a differential reinforcement procedure, you reinforce one behavior more than another. There are many varieties of DR procedures (for a complete overview, see our post Differential Reinforcement). Two related yet often confused varieties are differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) and differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI). So what is the real difference between DRA and DRI?

Both DRA and DRI reinforce a functionally equivalent replacement behavior while limiting or eliminating reinforcement for the maladaptive behavior. The subtle yet highly important difference between these 2 interventions lies in the relationship of the alternative behavior to the target behavior. If the alternative behavior you choose to reinforce is incompatible with the target behavior, then the intervention is a DRI procedure. If the alternative behavior is not incompatible with the target behavior, then the intervention is a DRO procedure.

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Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)

Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) procedures seek to reinforce an identified functionally equivalent alternative to the target behavior. For this procedure, you must follow some basic first steps:

  1. Define the target behavior.
  2. Identify the function of the behavior either through a functional behavior assessment (FBA) or a functional analysis (FA).
  3. Choose a functionally equivalent replacement behavior.
  4. Determine whether you will continue to allow the target behavior to achieve reinforcement or use extinction for the behavior.
  5. Define your procedures.
  6. Train the interventionist.

For help with these steps, read our articles on Accessible ABA:

During a DRA procedure, we often choose some form of communication as the functionally equivalent replacement behavior, although this is not always the case. Functional communication training (FCT) is a common form of DRA procedure. For more information about FCT, read our article: 5 Things You Need to Know About FCT.

Target behaviorFunctionExample replacement behavior
ScreamingAccess to a tangibleManding for the desired item
HittingEscape from sensoryWearing headphones
ElopingAccess to an activityManding for the desired activity
RefusalEscape from a difficult taskManding for a break

DRA in the Research

Legray, Dufrene, Mercer, Olmi, and Sterling (2013) evaluated the effectiveness of differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) with 4 typically developing young children in a classroom environment with the intent reduce problem behavior while also increasing more appropriate behavior. The authors determined that using DRA along with pre-teaching an alternative behavior had a significant impact on the behavior of the children. The study expands the research on DRA into general education, demonstrating the utility of behavioral intervention with individuals without disabilities.

Although extinction is often included as an element of a DRA procedure, the potentially serious results of this component (i.e. extinction burst) may make this element impractical. Athens and Vollmer (2010) evaluated the effects of manipulating different variables of the reinforcer (i.e. duration, quality and delay) on the occurrence of problem behavior. The authors differentially reinforced by implementing longer duration, higher quality or shorter delay to reinforcement for the desired behavior and a shorter duration, lower quality and longer delay to reinforcement for problem behavior. They found that when all 3 of these elements were manipulated, there was a more positive impact on behavior. Even when reinforcement is available for challenging behavior, manipulating elements of reinforcement and differentially reinforcing an appropriate alternative behavior improves outcomes.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI) procedures reinforce an identified behavior that is incompatible with the target behavior. As with DRA, this behavior should be related to the function of the target behavior, although with DRI that’s not always possible. When choosing a replacement behavior, you look for a behavior that can’t be performed at the same time as the target behavior and that’s what you reinforce. Here are some examples of incompatible behaviors:

Target behaviorFunctionIncompatible behaviors
ScreamingAccess to a tangibleHumming, drinking a cup of water, whispering
HittingEscape from sensoryHands in pockets, hands on table, holding a large object, clapping, covering ears
ElopingAccess to an activitySitting in a chair, doing jumping jacks, spinning in a circle
RefusalEscape from difficult taskTask completion

DRI in the Research

An evaluation of existing research conducted by Carr et al. (1990) found that DRI was most effective when the incompatible behavior was functionally related to the target behavior. Some studies found a much smaller treatment effect when the intervention simply reinforced a behavior that was topographically incompatible with the target behavior. While considering the compatibility of one behavior to the target behavior, keep in mind that you ultimately must address the function of the target behavior in some way.

A study by Daly and Ranalli (2003) looked at using DRA or DRI as part of a self-monitoring program for children with disabilities. The program uses Countoons as a visual representation of desired and undesired behaviors, as well as the reward for meeting the specified goal. The children then learn to count each time they engage in either behavior. If the child meets the goal for the session, the child earns the reward. This interesting application of the technology may also build independence for many individuals with developmental disabilities, although this is also likely to be effective with children without disabilities as well.

Semantic Difference Between DRA and DRI

While understanding the difference between DRA and DRI allows you to make critical treatment decisions, some of this difference is merely semantic. This difference falls along the lines that “all rectangles are parallelograms but not all parallelograms are rectangles” (for all of you geometry stars). Here’s the basic, semantic difference between DRA and DRI:

All DRI procedures are DRA procedures, but not al DRA procedures are DRI procedures.

What this means is that any incompatible behavior you choose is also an alternative behavior, but not all alternative behaviors are incompatible with the target behavior. This information helps you write behavior plans that clearly describe intervention procedures. Understanding the distinction assists you in communicating effectively with other professionals.

The Real Difference Between DRA and DRI

The primary difference between DRA and DRI is the relationship between the appropriate behavior that is reinforced and the target behavior. Many times your client benefits more from either an intervention that focuses more on the function of the target behavior or the form of that behavior. As stated earlier:

If the alternative behavior you choose to reinforce is incompatible with the target behavior, then the intervention is a DRI procedure. If the alternative behavior is not incompatible with the target behavior, then the intervention is a DRO procedure.

Which Intervention is Best?

As with all interventions in ABA, which intervention is best depends on your specific situation. Read the research on both of these interventions before making a final determination. Consider whether or not there are alternative behaviors that serve the same function and are also incompatible with the target behavior. These might be the most effective behaviors to teach your learner.

If you choose to implement a DRI procedure and the alternative behavior is not functionally related to the target behavior (i.e. it doesn’t serve the same function), then seek to include another intervention in your treatment package that addresses the function of the behavior.

A meta review of existing research by Wong et. al (2015) included DRI and DRA as evidenced-based interventions. Go ahead and give these interventions a try.

Learn More

Looking for even more detailed information about the different Differential Reinforcement procedures? Our easy to follow guide explains each type of Differential Reinforcement procedure along with pros and cons for each. The guide will connect you with research articles on the subject and prepare you for using the interventions effectively. Have an upcoming test, paper or project including DR? The guide will give you the information you need in language you can understand! Click the image below to visit our store on Teachers Pay Teachers.

References and Further Reading

Athens, E. S., & Vollmer, T. R. (2010). An investigation of differential reinforcement of alternative behavior without extinction. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 569-589. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/851224720?accountid=166077

Carr, E. G., et al. (1990). Positive approaches to the treatment of severe behavior problems in persons with developmental disabilities: A review and analysis of reinforcement and stimulus-based procedures. monograph no. 4., 1-44. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/62974256?accountid=166077

Daly, P. M., & Ranalli, P. (2003). Using countoons to teach self-monitoring skills. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(5), 30-35. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/201148804?accountid=166077

Dille, L. (2009). A comparison of two curricular models of instruction to increase teacher repertoires for instructing students with autism (Order No. 3367979). Available from Education Collection. (304865342). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/304865342?accountid=166077

Flynn, S. D., & Lo, Y. (2016). Teacher implementation of trial-based functional analysis and differential reinforcement of alternative behavior for students with challenging behavior. Journal of Behavioral Education, 25(1), 1-31. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10864-015-9231-2

Legray, M. W., Dufrene, B. A., Mercer, S., Olmi, D. J., & Sterling, H. (2013). Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior in center-based classrooms: Evaluation of pre-teaching the alternative behavior. Journal of Behavioral Education, 22(2), 85-102. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10864-013-9170-8

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., … & Schultz, T. R. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of autism and developmental disorders45(7), 1951-1966.

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