Use DRL to Reduce Behaviors, Not Eliminate Them

Children with autism engage in a variety of challenging behavior for different reasons (referred to as functions). Often, these behaviors are only a challenge due to the high rate of the behavior. Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL) might be the solution you need.

DRL provides a system for reducing a behavior without eliminating it. This form of differential reinforcement can be used in an assortment of different situations to gradually shape behavior over time. Add this valuable tool to your ABA toolbox.

Make sure you understand the basics of Differential Reinforcement (DR) before you read on. Understanding the fundamentals of DR will help you navigate a variety of different challenges! For a quick overview, read our article: Differential Reinforcement.

When to Use DRL

Differential reinforcement procedures are some of the most widely used interventions within ABA. DRL, although less common can be an effective means for reducing behaviors that are situationally appropriate, yet occur at too high of a rate. Situations where this might be beneficial include:

  • Asking for help
  • Raising a hand to answer questions
  • Eating
  • Completing homework

The above behaviors are desirable, yet if they occur at too high of a rate, they can become problematic. Take a look at how problems occur:

  • A child who asks for help with every task fails to build independence.
  • A student raises their hand to answer every question, does not allow other students to answer the question and may become frustrated if not called on
  • Eating too quickly leads to digestive problems and obesity
  • Completing homework too quickly leads to errors and sloppy work

Targeting these behaviors through other differential reinforcement procedures may result in unintentionally extinguishing them rather than just reducing them. When choosing which interventions to include as part of your package, carefully consider the following:

  • Severity of the behavior
  • Current levels of behavior
  • Potential for harm of the behavior
  • Skill of your interventionist
  • Other responsibilities of your interventionist
  • Ultimate goal for the rate of the behavior
  • Reinforcers available to the child

Prior to making your treatment decisions, take a look at how the advantages and disadvantages of DRL impact your specific situation.

Advantages of DRL

While Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior is not appropriate for every situation, there are many advantages that may make it a desirable intervention:

  • Lends itself to changing criteria to continue to reduce the behavior to a predetermined level
  • Reduces the chances of an extinction burst
  • Some procedures require minimal intervention making it practical for group environments such as classrooms

Disadvantages of DRL

Despite the advantages listed above, there are some important disadvantages to keep in mind:

  • Not intended to completely eliminate behavior, would need to ultimately add a component of extinction to eliminate the behavior
  • Requires counting each instance of the behavior
  • Not practical for behaviors occurring at very high rates

How to Use DRL

The steps for implementing DRL are essentially the same as for implementing many other differential reinforcement procedures. Learn more about these procedures by reading our posts: Differential Reinforcement and What You Need to Know About DRO. Becoming fluid with these steps will help you utilize all of the tools in your ABA toolbox. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Define the target behavior
  2. Identify the function of the target behavior
  3. Choose reinforcers
  4. Collect baseline data
  5. Determine the type of DRL procedure you will use
  6. Set the criteria to advance or reduce the reinforcement criteria
  7. Define your procedures
  8. Implement the intervention and collect data

1. Define the target behavior

The definition of the target behavior must be clear so that others who collect data can identify whether or not the behavior occurs at any given moment. The definition is critical to the success of your intervention plan. Don’t take shortcuts here. DRL requires an accurate count of the behavior to determine whether or not the child met reinforcement criteria. If your definition is unclear, your data won’t be accurate and your intervention will not be as effective as it could be.

Writing a good operational definition takes practice and can be tricky at first. If you need some help with this step, you can learn how to write an operational definition in our article: Clearly Define the Behavior on Accessible ABA. Take a look at the example below to get you started:

Asking for help: Approaching an adult or raising hand to get adult’s attention during independent work time. 

Examples include:

  • Raising hand while sitting at desk during writer’s workshop
  • Walking to the teacher’s desk during silent reading
  • Waving arm above head during math time to ask for help

Non-examples include:

  • Raising hand to answer a question during morning meeting
  • Walking up to an adult at recess

2. Identify the function of the target behavior

Correctly identifying the function of the behavior allows you to identify why the behavior continues (i.e. access or escape). Although during a DRL procedure, you don’t teach a functionally equivalent replacement behavior, having an understanding of why the behavior occurs helps you develop your intervention package. When implementing DRL, you will want to include a plan to teach a functionally equivalent replacement behavior. For more information about the possible functions of behavior, read our article: Understanding Functions of Behavior on Accessible ABA.

In addition to building your intervention package, identifying the function of the target behavior can help you with the next step, choosing reinforcers. Learn more about the different methods of identifying the function of a behavior by reading our article: What is the Difference Between Functional Analysis and Functional Behavior Assessment?on Accessible ABA

3. Choose reinforcers

Identifying an effective reinforcer is critical to the success of your DRL procedure. If you choose a reinforcer that serves the same function as the target behavior your intervention may prove more effective. Take a look at this example:

You decide to implement a DRL procedure to reduce the rate of asking for help maintained by access to teacher attention. You set up your DRL procedure to include access to the teacher’s attention as a component of the reinforcer available for meeting reinforcement criteria.

In the example above, your intervention has the added benefit of reducing the Motivating Operation (MO) for teacher attention by providing contingent attention for meeting criteria. Your client knows that she will have access to the teacher’s attention during the reinforcement period, thus may be less likely to engage in problem behavior to get it. Read our post Reinforcer Assessment or Preference Assessment for Children with Autism if you need help choosing a reinforcer.

4. Collect baseline data

Baseline data helps you determine the appropriate reinforcement criteria for your DRL procedure. These data should be collected over at least 3 data points and during relevant activities (activities that are often associated with the target behavior).

Baseline data helps you determine the appropriate reinforcement criteria for your DRL procedure. These data should be collected over at least 3 data points and during relevant activities (activities that are often associated with the target behavior).

Because DRL evaluates either the interresponse time (IRT) or the rate of the behavior, these are the data you will need to record.

To collect IRT, simply use a stopwatch to record the time between the end of one behavior and the beginning of its next occurrence. Data will be presented as an amount of time (i.e. minutes/seconds, etc.). For example: 6 minutes, 23 seconds.

To collect rate, count the number of occurrences of the behavior and divide by the unit of time you will be using. Data will be presented as a number over a predetermined amount of time (i.e. minute, hour, etc.). For example: 4.33 instances per hour.

5. Determine the type of DRL procedure you will use

There are 3 basic types of DRL procedures you can choose from based on your overall goal for behavior change, spaced responding, interval and full-session.

Spaced Responding DRL

Spaced Responding DRL seeks to increase the interresponse time (IRT) as a means for reducing the overall rate of the behavior. To begin, you will need accurate IRT baseline data to determine your initial reinforcement criteria. Set your initial reinforcement criteria below baseline data to ensure success. Take a look at this example:

Your baseline data reflect IRT of: 6 min 23 seconds, 8 min 47 seconds, and 7 min 14 seconds. You choose to set your initial reinforcement criteria at 5 minutes to ensure that your client contacts reinforcement. When your client has an IRT greater than 5 minutes, he receives reinforcement.

Interval DRL

Interval DRL sets a maximum criteria per interval in order to access reinforcement. This allows for reinforcement to be delivered more frequently than during full-session DRL and is more appropriate for individuals who are not yet able to delay reinforcement. Here’s an example:

Your baseline data reflect rate data of: 6 instances/hour, 5 instances/ hour, and 9 instances per hour. This is an average of 6.67 instances/hour. You set your initial reinforcement criteria at 5 instances/hour to ensure your client contacts reinforcement. When your client engages in fewer than 5 instances of the behavior in an hour, she receives reinforcement.

Full-Session DRL

Full-session DRL establishes a maximum criteria per session (i.e. day, class, etc.) in order to access reinforcement. This type of DRL offers an efficient intervention when 1:1 intervention is unavailable. Here’s one more example:

Your baseline data reflect the following data: 10 instances/class, 8 instances/class and 13 instances/class, for an average of 10.33 instances/class. You set the initial reinforcement criteria at 9 instances/class to ensure your client contacts reinforcement. When your client engages in fewer than 9 instances of the behavior during the class, he receives reinforcement.

Spaced RespondingIntervalFull-Session
IRT dataRate dataRate data
Increases time between responsesDecreases number of responses over timeDecreases number of responses over time

6. Set the criteria to advance or reduce the reinforcement criteria

Rarely is your initial reinforcement criteria your terminal goal. Often, it will be necessary to shape the behavior so that it gradually occurs at lower rates until it finally reaches the desired rate. Once you have established the appropriate initial interval, determine your reinforcement (R+) interval and progression to increase the length of the DRL reinforcement criteria. Here’s an example of changing criteria for an IRT DRL procedure when the baseline data showed an average of 6 minutes IRT at baseline. The criteria to advance or regress a step is above the chart.

Criteria to advance step:  Two consecutive days with fewer than 2 incidents of target behavior.

Criteria to regress step:  Four consecutive days with more than 4 incidents of target behavior.

StepDRO IntervalR+ Interval
15 minutes1 minute
26 minutes2 minutes
37 minutes3 minutes
48 minutes4 minutes
59 minutes5 minutes
610 minutes6 minutes
711 minutes7 minutes
812 minutes8 minutes

7. Define your procedures

To ensure that your intervention is implemented with fidelity, you must thoroughly define your procedure. Here’s an example of an Full-Session DRL procedure targeting asking for help for Violet, a 7 year old diagnosed with autism:

Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (DRL):

  1. Offer Violet a visual menu of preferred items she can work for (i.e. bubbles, iPad, etc.).
  2. At the end of every class during which Violet engages in fewer than the prescribed number of incidents of asking for help (as defined above), staff should present verbal praise (i.e. “Great job working independently! You’re doing awesome!”) along with the item selected in step 1. Staff should set the time for the prescribed R+ interval (see below). If Violet selected an edible, the R+ interval ends once the edible is fully consumed.
  3. If Violet engages in more than the prescribed number of incidents of asking for help,  withhold reinforcement and avoid engaging in conversation or otherwise drawing attention to the behavior. 
  • When the timer signals the end of the R+ interval, Violet should return to her regular activities.
  • Repeat steps 1-7.
StepDRO IntervalR+ Interval StepDRO IntervalR+ Interval
130 seconds1 minute52 mins, 30 sec2 minutes
21 minute1 minute63 minutes3 minutes
31 mins, 30 sec1 minutes73 mins, 30 sec3 minutes
42 minutes2 minutes84 minutes4 minutes

Criteria to increase step:  Two consecutive days with fewer than 4 incidents of target behavior.

Criteria to decrease step:  Four consecutive days with more than 6 incidents of target behavior.

8. Implement the intervention and collect data

Here’s where you get to see the fruits of your labor. Teach the interventionist (i.e. RBT, teacher, parent, etc.) to complete each step of the procedure as you defined it in step 7. The interventionist may express concern that you are providing reinforcement even when the behavior occurs far more often than is appropriate. This becomes a more pressing concern for staff when the behavior poses a potential safety risk or happens at so high a rate that it presents a real problem. Assure staff that this is necessary in order to reach your end goal.

Continue to collect data to ensure you move through the steps outlined in your definition of the procedure. This is critical to the success of your DRL. Remaining at the same interval length too long can result in lack of progress and ineffective intervention.

Video Example

In the video below, Dr. Mark Berg discusses the use of DRL to slow rates of responding in regard to the rate of eating candy and doing homework. He also demonstrates a wait program with his furry friend. This wait program demonstrates the use of Spaced Responding DRL to increase the interresponse time between occurrence of the behavior (eating) resulting in a decrease in the overall rate of the behavior.

DRL to Reduce Requests for Teacher Attention

Austin and Bevan (2011) used Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior to reduce the requests for teacher attention for 3 elementary school age girls. A full-session DRL procedure was implemented by the girls’ classroom teacher. She responded to each of there girl’s requests for attention as long as it was below the maximum criteria, thus providing reinforcement for these requests. The girl’s requests decreased in relation to the criteria that made reinforcement available. The teacher reported that the intervention was easy to use and the girls reported that they enjoyed the intervention.

DRL provides a method for reducing behaviors that occur at too high of a rate. The intervention can be applied in a variety of settings and may not require constant intervention from an adult. Go give it 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

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

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