In recent years the benefits of applied behavioral analysis therapy have proven to be ideal for helping individuals with autism spectrum disorder to improve a wide range of skills. ABA therapy uses a data-driven approach to track changes in behavior over time. While also finding the best therapeutic approach that is customized for each patient and their family/support system. One of the more powerful tools in an ABA therapist’s toolbox for modifying behaviors and teaching new skills is known as “Differential Reinforcement. More commonly known as DR to Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA), it is often the preferred treatment for reducing disruptive and non-compliant behaviors in children with developmental disabilities.

What Is Differential Reinforcement Alternative Behavior?

At its core DRA is a special type of operant conditioning that’s designed to increase the display of desirable behavior by providing a reward or perhaps by removing an aversive stimulus. The desired behavior is directly controlled by the individual’s understanding of consequences​.

This targeted reinforcing of a specific behavior while withholding reinforcement from an unwanted behavior is designed to replace the unwanted behavior through a conditioned choice or set of choices. It is a technique that has proven to be especially helpful for children with autism spectrum​ (ASD).

Anytime a targeted behavior is followed by a reward, or “Reinforcer” there is a higher likelihood that it will be repeated​. If, at the same time, the reinforcer is withheld when an unwanted behavior is displayed. This differential reinforcement arrangement moves the unwanted behavior toward extinction and replaces it with an appropriate one.

How Is Differential Reinforcement Used?

DRA can be incorporated into classroom environments as well as clinical settings. It can come in subtle forms such as a teacher ignoring a student who talks out of turn without raising their hand. Yet the teacher actively responds to them in a positive way when they do raise their hand in turn.

In an instance like this, the teacher’s eye contact and verbal attention serve as a form of positive reinforcement, as it is only given when the student displays acceptable behavior Some hospitals and in-patient mental healthcare facilities will also use DRA-based principles to reduce self-injurious behavior in patients​ with a history of self-harm​. A growing body of research has found that reserving the most preferred reinforcer for unprompted appropriate behavior can enhance new skill acquisition​. It can also be used to limit damaging behaviors, replacing them with healthy, positive ones.

The Different Forms of Differential Reinforcement

Several different forms of DRA can be used to address specific patient needs. Each of them focuses on reinforcing one type of behavior while withholding or reducing another.

The four most common forms of DRA are:

  • Differential reinforcement of alternate behavior.
  • Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior.
  • Differential reinforcement of other behavior.
  • Differential reinforcement of low rates.

Though each varies in the type of behavior being reinforced. The ABA therapist crafting the DRA treatment plan will select the form that is best for your child with ASD or other behavioral issues.

Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative

DRA is one of the more common approaches in ABA therapy. The ABA therapist designed the treatment plan so that the negative behavior is unlearned first. Then the new healthy behavior is replaced. It often focuses on social and communication maladaptive behaviors.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior

Also known as DRI this therapeutic approach is designed to reinforce a physically incompatible behavior and replace it with a more positive or appropriate behavior. Though it does so in a way that makes it impossible to perform both behaviors at the same time.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior

The DRO approach is designed to reinforce any behavior other than the unwanted behavior. This often starts by setting up timed intervals. If the inappropriate behavior doesn’t occur during the interval the appropriate reinforcement is provided.
Often DRO is used as a form of reinforcement as part of a contingent plan, based on the non-occurrence of the target behavior. Though it’s specific to that behavior. Other challenging or maladaptive behaviors can occur instead. If they are more severe, the reinforcement might still be withheld.

This potential limitation means that DRO is usually only used with an aversive contingency for it to be truly effective.

Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates

DRL is designed to reinforce a behavior at the end of an instructional or clinical session. Though this is only if the problem behavior occurred during the session at or below a preset criterion. The goal isn’t to completely eliminate the behavior but to decrease its frequency over time.

How Differential Reinforcement Can Be Used In Parenting

The basic principles of DRA can be applied to a wide range of positive parenting programs​. They can even be used in intervention treatment for problem behavior in children and teenagers. It has a proven track record to be effective in changing behavior in a home or clinical environment in the short term. It even has many applications being used in classrooms and special education centers.

The extent of time these behavior changes can maintain is highly variable. For some children, successful behavior modification through DRA might only take a handful of sessions. Whereas for others it might take a year or more of repetitive clinical sessions with consistent use at home.

When Is Differential Reinforcement Counter-Indicated

Differential reinforcement isn’t perfect for all situations and patients. It uses the core principles of behaviorism but doesn’t necessarily take into account the mental processes of a patient. The underlying approach assumes that you can train a child to adopt or reduce certain behaviors by controlling the reinforcement. All the cognitive components are left up to the child/patient.
If the child in question has cognitive limitations or their communication skills cannot process what’s being asked of them, DRA might not be the most effective approach. Your child’s ABA therapist will determine the potential effectiveness of DRA


Differential reinforcement often involves withholding reinforcement for unwanted behavior or providing it only when the child displays the appropriate replacement behavior. A growing body of research has found that it can be a highly effective tool for changing behavior in children in the short term, though long-term reinforcement to ingrain the new positive behavior might require additional therapeutic approaches.