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What is Differential Reinforcement in ABA?

January 2, 2024

Getting your child to develop good habits like making their bed and brushing their teeth can be a bit tricky. Instead of constantly reminding or resorting to punishments, you might want to try a method called differential reinforcement, one of the most popular techniques used in ABA.

This approach means rewarding the behaviors you want to see, like making the bed, with things like tips, treats, trips, or high fives. But there’s no reward when the behavior doesn’t happen. The idea is to focus on praising and rewarding the actions you want while not reinforcing the ones you don’t.

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What is Differential Reinforcement?

Differential Reinforcement means praising and rewarding the good things your child does while ignoring the behaviors you don’t want. It’s about deciding when to give rewards and when not to. For example, you can reward your child for making their bed but not give a reward when they don’t.

Research in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis suggests that using differential reinforcement can help children with autism get better at:

  • social skills
  • communication, 
  • play, 
  • getting ready for school, and 
  • everyday skills.

By not rewarding negative behaviors, the hope is that your child will start doing more positive things instead. Choosing the right time and actions to reward might also help reduce certain repetitive behaviors in kids with autism and improve their learning and development.

Types of Differential Reinforcement in ABA

There are several differential reinforcement (DR) types, each with a specific goal and approach. The most common types of differential reinforcement include:

  • DR of Other Behaviors,
  • DR of Alternative Behaviors,
  • DR of Incompatible Behaviors,
  • DR of Lesser Raters of Behavior,
  • DR of High Rates of Behavior.

Let’s explore each type of Differential Reinforcement in ABA with examples.

1. Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors (DRO)

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors is used to shape behavior by praising the child when they do something different from the behavior you want to change. This positive feedback is given occasionally to encourage better behavior.

An example of DRO: At home, you want to reinforce polite language and etiquette differentially. You offer the reward when a child says “please” and “thank you” and hold it back when they curse.

2. Differential Reinforcement of the Alternative Behaviors (DRA)

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors (DRA) is used to reward good behavior that’s similar to what you want, even if the exact response is missed. Identify the actions close to what you want, so you can give rewards when the main response is not there.

An example of DRO: In class, a teacher rewards students for finishing their homework on time just as they would reward those who actively participate in class. The teacher withholds the reward for laziness and lack of class participation.

3. Differential Reinforcement of the Incompatible Behaviors (DRI)

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (DRI) is used to reward actions and encourage a behavior that can’t happen at the same time as the inappropriate one.

An example of DRI: If a student who actively participates in class likes to shout out answers, they can be rewarded for raising their hand and waiting their turn to speak. This helps avoid unintentionally rewarding the behavior you don’t want, and that’s where extinction ABA is important.

4. Differential Reinforcement of Lesser Rates of Behavior (DRL)

Differential Reinforcement of Lesser Rates of Behavior (DRL) is used to reward a child when they show a behavior less frequently after a certain period of time with no occurrences. 

An example of DRL: A child is rewarded for making noise less frequently than they normally do in a classroom session.

5. Differential Reinforcement of High Rates of Behavior (DRH)

Differential Reinforcement of High Rates Behavior (DRH) is used to reward a child’s behavior only when it goes beyond a certain limit.

An example of DRH: If a child makes their bed every day for a week, they earn tokens. Once they collect enough tokens, they get a trip to the mall. The reward happens gradually over time.

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Benefits of Differential Reinforcement

Using differential reinforcement in autism therapy offers many benefits, including:

  • Customization: This approach can be tailored to suit the individual needs and preferences of every child on the spectrum.
  • Effective behavior modification: DR effectively encourages positive behavioral changes while reducing unwanted behaviors.
  • Empowerment: DR empowers children with autism by giving them control over their actions and consequences.

Tips for Implementing Differential Reinforcement

To effectively use differential reinforcement techniques at home or school, these tips could be helpful:

  • Establish clear objectives and closely monitor the child’s behavior using charts or tallies.
  • Set a specific time frame for teaching and offer rewards only if the undesired behavior doesn’t occur within that designated period. 
  • Consider breaking down lengthy intervals into shorter segments to achieve better results. 
  • Instead of waiting for an extended period, provide reinforcement at regular intervals, such as every 10 minutes.

Differential Reinforcement in Autism Therapy

Differential Reinforcement is a powerful tool in the arsenal of autism therapy strategies. By understanding its core principles and implementing them consistently, we can help individuals with autism achieve their fullest potential.

Although the journey of autism therapy may be challenging, with the right strategies and unwavering commitment, we can create a brighter future for children on the spectrum.


Q: What is differential reinforcement in ABA?

A: Differential reinforcement in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) means praising and rewarding the good things a child does while not giving as much attention to behaviors you don’t want to see.

Q: Can differential reinforcement be used in a classroom setting?

A: Differential Reinforcement can be effectively applied in the classroom to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative ones. By using rewards for desired actions and withholding reinforcement for undesirable behaviors, teachers can create a structured and supportive environment that promotes learning and development.

Q: What are some pros and cons of differential reinforcement?

A: Differential reinforcement is good for encouraging positive behavior with rewards, but it requires consistent use. The challenge lies in choosing the right rewards and keeping a close eye on the behavior.

Q: In which situations are Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL) used?

A: Differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (DRL) is used when the aim is to decrease the frequency of a behavior without completely stopping it. It’s applied when occasional instances of the behavior are acceptable, but a slower rate is desired.


Differential Reinforcement Procedures of Other Behavior (DRO). In: Volkmar, F.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Springer, New York, NY

On the definition of differential reinforcement of alternative behavior. J Appl Behav Anal. (2020)

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior

Using differential reinforcement of low rates to reduce children’s requests for teacher attention. J Appl Behav Anal.

The use of differential reinforcement to increase participation/engagement in children with autism in an inclusion setting, James Madison University


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