In this brief blog article, we will examine the different types of differential reinforcement. 

This article is useful for registered behavior technicians (RBT) or students who are studying to become board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs). Understanding (Applied Behavior Analysis) ABA terms is critical for both being an effective ABA therapist and passing your BCBA exam.

In an effort to help you study for your BCBA exam more effectively, this post is written in a “study note” form rather than as a long form blog post. They are my personal study notes I am sharing with you as a gift. I am spending my time studying so they are not edited. I am grateful for your understanding in overlooking the grammar!  Happy Studying! 

Differential reinforcement is a technique used when using an extinction procedure. It refers to reinforcing a different procedure by redirecting someone to perform a different response. In other terms you withhold reinforcement for one behavior and provide reinforcement for another. For example, you will reinforce a child raising his hand in class but not calling out. It can also be used to teach discrimination. For example, you tell the child to point to a dog and you reinforce him when he points to a dog but not to a picture of a cat.

There are several types of differential reinforcement:

Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behavior (DRA):

Definition of DRA:

Differential reinforcement is an ABA technique in which you put a behavior on extinction and instead reinforce and teach a functionally equivalent replacement behavior. The goal is that the replacement behavior will eventually replace the problem behavior. 

You would use DRA when:

You would use DRA when you are trying to provide access to the same reinforcer that a challenging behavior would have previously reinforced.

Examples of DRA:  

Example 1.) Kim will scream and yell when she wants a cookie. Screaming is maintained by socially positive reinforcement in the form of access to tangible. If using differential reinforcement of alternative behavior, you would not provide Kim access to a cookie when she screams and instead teach her another way to get the cookie such as asking nicely. This is DRA because asking nicely provides Kim another way to get the cookie without the undesirable behavior of screaming being reinforced with the goal of asking nicely replacing screaming. 

Example 2.) Kevin walks up to other girls in class and makes inappropriate remarks about their body. It is determined that this behavior is maintained by socially positive reinforcement in the form of access to attention. Kevin is taught to tell girls jokes as a functionally equivalent replacement for making inappropriate remarks about their body. Kevin will use jokes instead of inappropriate remarks to get the attention he seeks.

Example 3.)  Kristin likes to clap her hands during class. This is very disturbing to her peers and in order for her to be able to stay in her current classroom setting, this behavior must be  reduced. It is determined that this behavior is being maintained by automatic positive reinforcement and that Kristin is craving a sensory sensation by clapping her hands. Kristin is provided with a fidget spinner to use in class instead of clapping her hands. The fidget spinner provides her with the same reinforcement as clapping her hands and is not disturbing to her peers. 

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO):

Definition of DRO:

Differential reinforcement refers to reinforcing the absence of a behavior during a given time interval. 

You would use DRO when: 

Differential reinforcement is typically used to decrease a behavior.  This is typically used only for dangerous behaviors that occur at a very high rate that must be extinguished. You would generally not want to use DRO first as it does not teach a replacement behavior and you can inadvertently reinforce other undesirable behaviors by reinforcing any behavior but the target behavior. This behavior should typically only be used for dangerous behaviors such as aggression or self injury. There are two serious advantages to DRO though. For one, it is very easy to use for teachers and parents. Two, you are working on the behavior indirectly since you are reinforcing its absence which is important since you do not want a dangerous behavior to occur. 

Examples of DRO:  

Example 1.) John frequently engages in biting his therapist as an escape behavior. This behavior is dangerous and occurs at a high rate. John’s therapist sets a timer and if he does not bite during the one minute interval he gets a token. 

Example 2.) During recess, Jennifer will frequently run up to children and push them, laugh and walk away. This occurs fairly regularly every day during recess. The parents of other kids are starting to complain and the teacher frequently cannot let Jennifer participate in recess. Snack occurs right after recess. The school’s BCBA recommends that her teacher provide Jennifer with a special snack if she does not engage in pushing her friends outside of recess. 

Example 3.) Jillian will often bite her hand when she is upset. This occurs frequently in therapy sessions. She is very highly reinforced by youtube videos. For every five minutes that she does not engage in biting herself she is allowed to watch one minute of a youtube video. If she bites herself, her therapist restarts the timer. 

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)

Definition of DRI: 

Differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior is when you put one behavior on extinction and instead teach a replacement behavior that is impossible for the child to engage in at the same time. Most times when DRI is used, it is usually also a DRA because you should almost always ensure that you are teaching a functionally equivalent replacement behavior.  An exception would be for automatically reinforced dangerous behaviors for which there is no safe functionally equivalent replacement behavior or when the reinforced behavior for non compliance is compliance. 

You would use DRI when:

You should use DRI when you are trying to reduce a behavior by providing the child with an alternative activity that they cannot engage in at the same time.

Examples of DRI:  

Example 1.) Brian frequently engages in skin picking. He will use his right hand to pick the skin off of his left fingers which has resulted in bleeding and infections. Brian likes fidget spinners. His therapist gives him a fidget spinner and reinforcers using the fidget spinner instead of picking. This is DRI because Brian can’t use the fidget spinner and pick his skin at the same time.

Example 2.) Beverly frequently bites her therapist. A functional behavior assessment determines that this behavior is reinforced by automatic positive reinforcement. Beverly is provided with wearable chewable jewelry and is taught to buy the jewelry instead. This is DRI because she cannot bite her therapist and the jewelry at the same time. Note that this is also a DRA procedure because the two behaviors serve the same function. Technically, if the two behaviors can’t be performed at the same time, it is a DRI but this example clearly illustrates there can be a lot of overlap. 

Example 3.) Billy frequently gets out of his seat during class. When he stands up his teacher tells him to sit down and then praises him for sitting nicely. This is a DRI because Billy can’t be sitting in his seat and be out of his seat at the same time. However, in this example, the two behaviors are not functionally equivalent.  This is an example of when you are using DRI to reinforce the opposite behavior of the behavior on extinction. 

Differential reinforcement of lower rates of behavior (DRL):

Definition of DRL:

DRL is used when you reinforce a behavior when it occurs under a predetermined number of times in a time period. 

You would use DRL when:

You would use DRL when a behavior is acceptable but it occurs at a rate that is too high. The goal of the DRL would not be to eliminate or replace the behavior but lower the rate that it occurs. The goal is to increase the inter response time between occurrences of the behavior. More often than not, the rate reinforced is set based upon the baseline and the criteria changes as the behavior starts to decrease. 

There are three different types of DRL:

Full Session DRL: 

Full session DRL is when you provide reinforcement when a behavior occurs less than a predetermined number of times in an entire treatment session. This is an effective strategy for teachers because it is easy to implement. It does require a student to be able to wait until the end of a treatment session to gain access to reinforcement. 

Example of Full Session DRL)

Alyssa constantly asks for help with every problem on a 10 question worksheet. This has created a dependence on her teacher. Alyssa is told she can only ask for help 5 times per worksheet. Eventually, this is reduced to 3 times and 1 time. Alyssa eventually learns to complete her worksheets without excessively asking for help and gains confidence and independence.

Interval DRL:

Interval DRL is when you break a treatment session into equal intervals.  Reinforcement is delivered at the end of the interval if the behavior occurred under a predetermined number of times. As soon as a behavior exceeds the occurrence limit, the interval is reset.  Interval DRL is more work to implement but it provides the learner more frequent access to reinforcement. 

Example of Interval DRL)

Alexander gets up frequently during class. He will get up at least 10 times per hour. It is okay for Alexander to get up during class but his teacher believes that he is getting up too often. Alexander’s teacher tells him that he is only allowed to get up 5 times per hour during class. When Alexander gets up five or fewer times per hour, he receives a sticker.

Spaced Responding DRL:

Spaced responding DRL is when you provide reinforcement when the interresponse time of a behavior is greater than a minimum specified amount of time. This is the most effective DRL procedure for making sure that a behavior is reduced and not eliminated.  Like interval DRL, spaced responding DRL also provides a learner with more frequent access to reinforcement. It is the only DRL procedure that provides reinforcement immediately after a behavior occurs. With full session and interval DRL, reinforcement could be obtained if the rate of behavior is 0. 

Example of Spaced Responding DRL)

Amy raises her question every single time the teacher asks a question and gets frustrated when her teacher does not call on her. Amy’s teacher is excited that Amy wants to participate in class and does not want her to stop raising her hand but wants to reduce her hand raising to a rate that is commensurate with the other students in the class. Amy is told that once she raises her hand, she must wait five minutes before she can raise her hand again. If Amy waits at least five minutes, after raising her hand, her teacher immediately calls on her and tells her she did a good job waiting to raise her hand. If she raises her hand before the five minutes is up, Amy’s teacher does not call on her and reminds her she must wait five minutes to raise her hand. Each time Amy raises her hand before five minutes is up her teachers resets the interval.

Differential reinforcement of higher rates of behavior (DRH):

Definition of DRH: DRH is used when you reinforce a behavior when it occurs over a predetermined number of times in a time period. 

You would use DRH when: 

You would use DRH when you want to increase a behavior, usually that a child knows how to do, that occurs at a high rate but there is no behavior that you want to decrease. For example, manding (requesting). The goal of DRH is to decrease the interresponse time between occurrences of the behavior. 

Examples of DRH:

Example 1.)  Paul knows how to make his bed but he frequently forgets. It is important to his parents that he makes his bed every day. Right now Paul independently makes his bed 3 days per week. His parents use DRH and tell Paul he can go to the movies on Friday night if he makes his bed at least 4 times in a week.

Example 2.) Peter is very shy. He usually knows the answers to questions in class but rarely raises his hand. Currently, he only raises his hand on average once per day. His teacher has a classroom store and students can earn coupons to redeem for items in the classroom store. His teacher tells Peter that if he raises his hand at least three times per day, he will earn a coupon.

Example 3.) Paola is learning to ask for what she wants using a manding program designed by her BCBA to establish functional communication. Paola is verbal and knows how to ask for what she wants but she is often quiet, withdrawn and will not use her words to get her needs met. Her BCBA has determined that currently in a half hour she only asks for what she wants about 5 times per half hour. Her BCBA tells Paola that she can earn 5 minutes of iPad time after a half hour is over if she uses her words to get her needs met at least 10 times.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.

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