child talking with therapist

Differential Reinforcement

This article is part of our ABA therapy techniques series where we explore the different techniques used by ABA therapists.


Differential reinforcement is one of the most important tools used in ABA therapy. This technique can help improve unwanted behaviors and strengthen the desired ones in children with autism. Continue reading to find out more about differential reinforcement and how it works. 

What Is Differential Reinforcement?

Differential reinforcement is the preferred method for encouraging appropriate behaviors and reducing disruptive ones in children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities. This technique can be used both by parents, teachers, and applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapists.


The differential reinforcement procedure is based on the belief that reinforcement strengthens the association between a behavior and receiving a reward. In other words, children tend to repeat rewarded behaviors and are less likely to pursue those that are being ignored. 

The Goal of Differential Reinforcement

The goal of the differential reinforcement technique in ABA therapy is to reduce unwanted behaviors in children with autism and replace them with desirable ones. 

How Does It Work?

Differential reinforcement consists of two main components:

  • Reinforcing the appropriate behavior, and
  • Withholding reinforcement of the inappropriate behavior

Reinforcing the appropriate behavior

Reinforcement consists of rewarding a child after displaying the desired behavior in order to increase the probability that the same behavior will occur again in the future. For example, each time a child plays appropriately with toys instead of throwing them, he or she receives a reward. The type of reinforcement will vary depending on the child’s preferences and the situation and can be anything from a preferred snack to playing with a favorite toy, or even verbal praise.


For optimal results, positive reinforcement should be implemented as soon as a child performs the target behavior. A reward can also be provided for an incompatible behavior or simply the absence of the challenging behavior. 


On the other hand, reinforcement is not provided when the desired behavior does not occur. If a child is reinforced and given attention for both appropriate and challenging behaviors, he or she is more likely to continue engaging in the challenging behavior. 

Withholding reinforcement

Unlike traditional discipline methods which use punishment to discourage negative behaviors, the essential part of differential reinforcement is ignoring these behaviors. This means that instead of providing positive or negative reinforcement, the therapist will avoid making eye contact with the child, remain silent, or move away. If a child’s negative behavior is not reinforced over time, it will eventually cease.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that withholding reinforcement often causes the negative behavior to escalate before it starts improving. That’s why implementing this technique requires plenty of consistency and patience.

Read on to learn more about various types of differential reinforcements implemented in ABA therapy.

How to Use Differential Reinforcement?

ABA therapists use several forms of differential reinforcements, depending on the type of target behavior. The four most common ones are: 

  • Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA)
  • Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI)
  • Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO)
  • Differential reinforcement of low rates (DRL)

Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA)

Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) entails reinforcing a behavior that may serve as an alternative to the unwanted behavior. The two behaviors are not necessarily incompatible. 


For example, a child shouts out each time the teacher asks a question. In this case, the teacher may decide to use the DRA technique and reward the child for raising a hand to answer a question, which is more acceptable behavior. It is not incompatible with shouting out and both behaviors can occur at the same time. 


DRA can be successfully used in a variety of settings to simultaneously reduce problem behavior and reinforce a new skill in children with autism. At the same time, it is essential to systematically teach appropriate replacement skills in addition to reinforcing them. The alternative behavior must also be easier for the child to engage in when compared to the challenging behavior.

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI)

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI) is similar to DRA, as reinforcement is withheld for challenging behavior and provided for an appropriate replacement behavior. The main difference between the two methods is that DRA deals with behaviors that are incompatible and can’t occur at the same time.


For example, a child frequently leaves the seat during class. The teacher ignores this unwanted behavior, however, whenever the child remains seated, he or she is rewarded with a sticker or praise. These two behaviors are mutually exclusive and incompatible—the child can either stand up or remain seated. 

Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO)

Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO) reinforces any behavior except for the unwanted one. Reinforcement is provided if challenging behavior does not occur within a specified interval of time.


An example of this type of differential reinforcement is a child who repeatedly leaves the seat during dinnertime. The parent may decide to set a timer for fifteen minutes. If the child remains seated during this allotted period of time, he or she is rewarded with a favorite activity or a treat after dinner.


Although the DRO is a good starting point in situations where it is not possible to quickly identify an appropriate replacement behavior, this technique has some drawbacks. It does not involve systematic teaching of appropriate replacement behavior. Additionally, since only the absence of a specific challenging behavior is reinforced, the child may turn to other unwanted behaviors. 

Differential reinforcement of low rates (DRL)

Differential reinforcement of low rates (DRL) is used to reduce the frequency of challenging behaviors instead of eliminating them entirely. This technique is typically used for repetitive behaviors that are otherwise socially acceptable, such as repeatedly washing hands. 


Using the DRL technique, the teacher rewards the child if he or she avoids washing hands more than once before lunch. This encourages the child to reduce the frequency of behavior that is in itself positive, under the condition that it is not repetitive. 


If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in Indiana, New Jersey, or New York, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family. 

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