Differential Reinforcement in ABA Therapy
Welcome to our ABA therapy technique series where we explore the different techniques used by ABA therapists. In this article we will learn about Differential Reinforcement.
Differential reinforcement is a technique used by ABA therapists to help improve unwanted behaviors in children with autism.
In this article, we explain the types of differential reinforcement and how they are used in ABA therapy.
What Is Differential Reinforcement
Differential reinforcement is a common method used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to reduce inappropriate, disruptive, or harmful behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder.
This ABA technique is based on reinforcing appropriate behaviors, while at the same time withholding reinforcement for unwanted ones.
The reinforcement consists of rewarding a child whenever he or she displays 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 on the floor, he or she receives a reward. The reward can be anything from tokens or a favorite activity to simple praise.
On the other hand, when the desired behavior does not occur, there is no reinforcement. In this case, the therapist will avoid making eye contact with the child, remain silent, or move away. If a child is reinforced and given attention when displaying challenging behavior, he or she is more likely to continue engaging in this behavior.
What Is Differential Reinforcement Used For?
Differential reinforcement is commonly used to reduce maladaptive behaviors in children with autism that need to be modified quickly, such as:
- Aggression (kicking, slapping, biting)
- Self-harming behaviors (head banging, hitting, scratching)
- Destroying items (throwing and breaking objects)
- Eloping (running away from parents or caregivers)
- Throwing tantrums.
The differential reinforcement technique can also be used to strengthen desired behaviors.
Below, we list the common methods of using differential reinforcement in ABA therapy.
Types of Differential Reinforcement
The main forms of differential reinforcement used in ABA therapy include:
- Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI)
- Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA)
- Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO)
- Differential reinforcement of lower rates of behavior (DRL)
- Differential reinforcement of higher rates of behavior (DRH)
Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI)
In differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior, reinforcement is withheld for negative behaviors and provided for appropriate replacement behaviors. In this case, challenging and desirable behaviors are mutually incompatible.
An example of this technique is a child who frequently leaves the seat during class. The teacher using DRI will systematically ignore the child engaging in this behavior. However, whenever the child remains seated, the teacher will offer a reward in the form of a sticker or praise to reinforce the target behavior of remaining seated during class.
Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA)
Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior refers to rewarding a positive behavior that can serve as an alternative to the unwanted behavior. Unlike with DRI, these two behaviors are not mutually exclusive and can occur at the same time.
For example, the DRA technique can be used with a child who shouts out each time the teacher asks a question. In this case, the teacher will reward the child for displaying acceptable behavior, such as raising a hand to answer a question. These two behaviors—raising a hand to answer a question and shouting out—are not incompatible and can occur simultaneously.
Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO)
Differential reinforcement of other behavior is used to reinforce any behavior except for the unwanted one. In addition, a reward is provided only if challenging behavior does not occur within a period of time specified by a therapist, a teacher, or a parent.
For instance, a child repeatedly leaves the table during dinnertime and the child’s parents decide to set a timer for ten minutes. If the child remains seated during this period, he or she is rewarded with a favorite activity or a treat after dinner. Unlike the above two methods, this technique does not involve teaching appropriate replacement behavior.
Differential reinforcement of lower rates of behavior (DRL)
Differential reinforcement of low rates can help reduce the frequency of challenging behaviors, when there is no need to entirely eliminate them. DRL is generally used for repetitive behaviors that are socially acceptable, such as repeatedly washing hands.
Using the DRL technique, the teacher will reward the child whenever 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 not negative.
Differential reinforcement of higher rates of behavior (DRH)
Differential reinforcement of higher rates of behavior is a strategy where reinforcement is provided to increase the occurrences of the desired behavior that the child already displays.
For example, a child who knows how to make his or her bed but frequently forgets to do it, will get a reward when the bed is made at least three times per week. This reinforcement will gradually increase the occurrence of the target behavior.