What is Differential Reinforcement (DRI) In ABA

Discover how differential reinforcement (DRI) works in ABA therapy to decrease problem behaviors while increasing alternative desired behaviors through strategic rewards.

Understanding Differential Reinforcement in ABA

In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), differential reinforcement is a fundamental concept that plays a crucial role in shaping behavior. By understanding the principles behind differential reinforcement and its application in ABA, we can effectively promote positive behavior change.

What is Differential Reinforcement?

Differential reinforcement is a technique used in ABA to increase the occurrence of desirable behaviors while reducing or eliminating unwanted behaviors. It involves providing reinforcement or consequences based on the presence or absence of specific target behaviors. This approach focuses on reinforcing alternative, incompatible, or other desired behaviors while withholding reinforcement for undesirable behaviors.

Differential reinforcement techniques are based on the principles of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. The goal is to shape behavior by reinforcing behaviors that are more socially appropriate, functional, or desired, while reducing the occurrence of problematic or challenging behaviors.

The Basics of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a scientific discipline that utilizes principles of learning theory to modify behavior. ABA focuses on identifying the environmental factors that influence behavior and implementing strategies to bring about meaningful and positive changes.

ABA interventions are based on the understanding that behavior is influenced by its consequences. By manipulating antecedents and consequences, ABA practitioners can effectively shape behavior and teach new skills. Differential reinforcement is one of the key strategies used in ABA interventions to achieve behavior change.

Through the systematic application of ABA principles, individuals can acquire new skills, reduce problematic behaviors, and improve their overall quality of life. ABA is widely utilized in various settings, including schools, clinics, and homes, to address a range of behavioral challenges and developmental disorders.

By comprehending the concept of differential reinforcement and its integration within the framework of ABA, we can gain valuable insights into the techniques and strategies employed to promote positive behavior change. In the following sections, we will explore specific differential reinforcement techniques, the differences between differential reinforcement and traditional reinforcement, as well as ethical considerations associated with its implementation.

Differential Reinforcement Techniques

In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), differential reinforcement is a fundamental concept used to modify behavior. It involves reinforcing specific behaviors while withholding reinforcement for others. There are several techniques within differential reinforcement, including Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA), Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI), and Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO).

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA) involves reinforcing a desirable behavior that serves as an alternative to the problem behavior. The goal is to increase the occurrence of the desired behavior while reducing or eliminating the problem behavior. This technique is particularly useful when the problem behavior is interfering with the individual's ability to engage in appropriate behaviors.

To implement DRA, it is essential to identify a specific alternative behavior that is functionally equivalent or serves the same purpose as the problem behavior. By consistently reinforcing the alternative behavior and withholding reinforcement for the problem behavior, the individual is motivated to engage in the desirable behavior instead. This technique can be effective in a variety of settings and situations.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI) involves reinforcing a behavior that is incompatible with the problem behavior. In other words, the individual cannot engage in both behaviors simultaneously. By reinforcing the incompatible behavior, the problem behavior becomes less likely to occur.

To apply DRI, it is crucial to identify a behavior that is physically or psychologically incompatible with the problem behavior. For example, if a child engages in hand-flapping when excited, providing them with an alternative activity, such as clapping their hands, can be reinforced. This encourages the child to engage in the incompatible behavior instead of the problem behavior.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO) involves reinforcing the absence or non-occurrence of the problem behavior during specific time intervals. With DRO, the individual receives reinforcement as long as the problem behavior does not occur within the defined time frame. This technique is particularly useful when trying to reduce or eliminate problem behaviors.

To implement DRO, it is necessary to establish a predetermined interval, such as every five minutes, during which the individual must refrain from engaging in the problem behavior. If they successfully avoid the problem behavior during that interval, they receive reinforcement. This technique helps encourage the individual to engage in other behaviors instead of the problem behavior.

By utilizing these differential reinforcement techniques, behavior analysts can effectively shape behavior and promote positive change. It is important to carefully select the appropriate technique based on the individual's needs and behavior.

Differential Reinforcement vs. Traditional Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement is a powerful technique utilized in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to shape and modify behavior. It differs from traditional reinforcement methods in several key aspects. Understanding these differences is essential in comprehending the unique benefits and limitations of differential reinforcement.

Key Differences Between Differential Reinforcement and Traditional Reinforcement

Differential Reinforcement Traditional Reinforcement
Focuses on reinforcing specific target behaviors while ignoring others Reinforces any behavior that meets a certain criterion
Utilizes reinforcement contingencies based on specific behavior dimensions Uses general reinforcement contingencies
Requires careful assessment and identification of target behaviors Does not require specific target behavior identification
Emphasizes the use of reinforcement schedules and token systems for reinforcement delivery Relies on immediate and direct reinforcement delivery
Targets behavior change by reinforcing alternative or incompatible behaviors Reinforces any behavior that meets a certain criterion, regardless of its relationship to the target behavior

Advantages and Limitations of Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement offers several advantages over traditional reinforcement methods in the context of behavior modification. Some of these advantages include:

  • Targeted Behavior Change: By focusing on specific target behaviors and reinforcing alternative or incompatible behaviors, differential reinforcement allows for precise behavior change.
  • Efficiency: The use of reinforcement schedules and token systems in differential reinforcement can lead to increased efficiency in reinforcement delivery.
  • Behavior Generalization: Differential reinforcement promotes the generalization of desired behaviors across different settings and contexts.
  • Long-term Maintenance: By reinforcing sustainable and socially appropriate behaviors, differential reinforcement can help maintain behavior change over the long term.

However, it's important to consider the limitations of differential reinforcement:

  • Complexity: Implementing differential reinforcement techniques may require a higher level of expertise and training compared to traditional reinforcement methods.
  • Individualization: Differential reinforcement plans need to be tailored to individual needs and may require ongoing assessment and adjustment.
  • Resource Intensity: The use of reinforcement schedules and token systems may require additional resources and planning.
  • Limited Applicability: Differential reinforcement may not be suitable or effective for all individuals or behaviors.

Understanding the key differences and weighing the advantages and limitations of differential reinforcement is crucial for professionals working in the field of ABA. By doing so, they can make informed decisions about the most appropriate and effective strategies to promote behavior change in individuals. 

Applying Differential Reinforcement in Practice

To effectively apply differential reinforcement in practice, several steps need to be followed. These steps include identifying target behaviors, creating a reinforcement plan, and monitoring and assessing progress.

Identifying Target Behaviors

The first step in applying differential reinforcement is to identify the target behaviors that you want to increase or decrease. These behaviors should be specific, observable, and measurable. By clearly defining the behaviors, you can focus your efforts on implementing the appropriate reinforcement strategies.

It is important to consider both the desired alternative behavior you want to reinforce (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior or DRA) and the incompatible behavior you want to decrease (Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior or DRI). For example, if a child engages in aggressive behavior, the target behavior might be to teach them to use appropriate communication skills instead.

Creating a Reinforcement Plan

Once the target behaviors have been identified, the next step is to create a reinforcement plan. This plan outlines the specific procedures and strategies that will be used to reinforce the desired behaviors. The reinforcement plan should include information on the type of reinforcement that will be used, the schedule of reinforcement, and any additional strategies that may be necessary.

The type of reinforcement that is chosen will depend on the individual's preferences and the effectiveness of different reinforcers. Common types of reinforcement include verbal praise, access to preferred items or activities, and tokens that can be exchanged for rewards. It may be helpful to refer to examples of differential reinforcement to better understand how to implement these strategies. 

Monitoring and Assessing Progress

Once the reinforcement plan is in place, it is essential to monitor and assess the progress of the individual. This involves collecting data on the target behaviors to determine whether the reinforcement strategies are effectively increasing or decreasing the behaviors as intended.

Data collection can be done through various methods, such as direct observation, behavior rating scales, or event recording. The data collected should be analyzed regularly to evaluate the effectiveness of the reinforcement plan. This analysis will help in making any necessary adjustments to the strategies, reinforcement schedule, or criteria for reinforcement. It is important to note that progress might take time, and consistency in implementing the reinforcement plan is key.

By following these steps and implementing a well-designed reinforcement plan, individuals working in applied behavior analysis (ABA) can effectively apply differential reinforcement techniques to promote positive behavior change. Remember, the goal is to reinforce the desired alternative behaviors (DRA) while reducing the occurrence of incompatible behaviors (DRI).

Ethical Considerations in Differential Reinforcement

Implementing differential reinforcement in applied behavior analysis (ABA) requires careful consideration of ethical guidelines. It is essential to ensure that the use of reinforcement is appropriate, balanced with other intervention strategies, and addresses potential challenges and pitfalls that may arise.

Ensuring Appropriate Use of Reinforcement

When employing differential reinforcement techniques, it is crucial to ensure that the reinforcement provided is meaningful and appropriate for the individual's needs. Reinforcement should be individualized and based on the person's preferences and motivations. It is essential to consider cultural, social, and personal factors that may influence the effectiveness of reinforcement.

Additionally, reinforcement should be contingent on the desired behavior and delivered consistently. It is important to avoid reinforcing unwanted behaviors unintentionally. Data collection and ongoing assessment are essential to monitor the effectiveness of the reinforcement plan and make necessary adjustments.

Balancing Reinforcement with Other Intervention Strategies

While differential reinforcement can be a powerful tool in behavior change, it is important to balance its use with other intervention strategies. A comprehensive approach that combines reinforcement with other evidence-based techniques, such as functional communication training, prompting, and shaping, can lead to more successful outcomes.

ABA professionals should conduct a functional behavior assessment to identify the underlying causes of the target behavior. This assessment helps determine if the behavior is maintained by reinforcement and if differential reinforcement is an appropriate intervention. By considering the broader context of the behavior and implementing a multi-faceted approach, practitioners can optimize the effectiveness of intervention strategies.

Addressing Potential Challenges and Pitfalls

Implementing differential reinforcement may present challenges and pitfalls that need to be addressed to ensure ethical practice. Some potential challenges include:

  • Satiation: Over-reliance on a specific reinforcer can lead to satiation, diminishing its effectiveness. It is important to periodically assess and rotate reinforcers to maintain their motivating value.
  • Generalization: Reinforcement may be effective in one setting but fail to generalize to other environments or situations. Generalization strategies, such as systematically fading prompts and reinforcement across settings, should be implemented.
  • Extinction Bursts: When reinforcement is initially withheld, the target behavior may temporarily increase in intensity. This phenomenon, known as an extinction burst, should be anticipated and managed appropriately to prevent escalation and potential harm.

By being mindful of these challenges and pitfalls, practitioners can proactively address them and adjust the intervention plan as needed. Ongoing training, supervision, and collaboration with other professionals are essential to navigate ethical considerations and ensure the best outcomes for individuals receiving differential reinforcement in ABA.


Is DRI only used with children?

No, DRI can be used with individuals of all ages. It is a widely used technique in ABA therapy for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, but it can also be effective for addressing unwanted behaviors in other populations.

How long does it take to see results with DRI?

The time it takes to see results with DRI varies depending on the individual and the behavior being addressed. Some individuals may show improvement quickly, while others may require more time and practice before the new behavior becomes established.

What happens if the replacement behavior is not reinforcing enough?

If the replacement behavior is not reinforcing enough, the therapist will work with the individual to identify a different replacement behavior that is more effective. It's important to find a replacement behavior that is both incompatible with the unwanted behavior and reinforcing for the individual.

Can DRI be used in conjunction with other ABA techniques?

Yes, DRI can be used in combination with other ABA techniques such as positive reinforcement, prompting, and shaping. The specific techniques used will depend on the individual's needs and goals for treatment.


Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior (DRI) is an effective technique used in ABA therapy to decrease unwanted behaviors and increase desired behaviors. It involves reinforcing a behavior that is incompatible with the unwanted behavior. In ABA therapy, DRI is often used as a replacement behavior to teach individuals new skills and reduce the likelihood of undesirable behaviors reoccurring. The benefits of DRI in ABA therapy include a positive approach to behavior change and the ability to address a wide range of behaviors. By implementing DRI in ABA therapy, individuals can learn socially appropriate behaviors and improve their quality of life.







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