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How to Increase Appropriate Behaviours in Children Through Differential Reinforcement

2-year-old Javier has a habit of biting his nails. His parents have tried bribery and punishment to discourage him, but the attention that has been given only served to reinforce this undesirable behaviour. At the advice of Javier’s ABA therapist, his parents will withhold reinforcement whenever Javier bites his nails and only praise or reward him with his favourite toy or food when he stops. After some time, Javier realises that he will only receive rewards when he stops biting his nails, and this led him to gradually reduce the frequency of his nail-biting behaviour.

The behavioural intervention implemented in this scenario is known as Differential Reinforcement (DR). It is a well-known strategy used in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) to reduce undesirable or challenging behaviour and encourage appropriate replacement behaviour in children. This can be done through the use of reinforcement, that is, reinforcing the desired behaviour while withholding reinforcement for the negative behaviour.

To understand Differential Reinforcement better, let us first learn about the purpose and efficacy of ABA.

Daddy and Child

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

ABA has helped individuals of all ages for over 50 years. This form of therapy, usually conducted one-on-one by ABA practitioners, is backed by scientific researches and evidence. As a result, it is one of the most effective interventions for children with various developmental and behavioural delays and/or challenges, including children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Why is ABA effective? ABA uses the principles of learning and motivation to teach children skills, such as functional communication and language skills, social skills, play skills and academic skills. It is also used to reduce interfering or detrimental behaviours, teach new or replacement skills as well as shape positive and socially acceptable behaviours.

ABA practitioners take on a data-driven approach with ongoing evaluations and modifications, where necessary, to enhance the effectiveness of the therapy. The ultimate goal of ABA is to enable the child to foster independence and improve their ability to generalise and utilise learning across different situations, settings and/or people.

Differential Reinforcement

Differential Reinforcement is based on the theory that reinforced behaviours are more likely to be repeated than those that are not reinforced. As such, Differential Reinforcement focuses on two main elements:

  • Giving reinforcement to appropriate or desired behaviour
  • Withholding reinforcement for negative or inappropriate behaviour

Generally, this is how the Differential Reinforcement strategy will be implemented, where an ABA practitioner will:

  • Identify the challenging behaviour and understand the reason for this behaviour. For example, is the child exhibiting the behaviour to gain attention or using it as a form of sensory escape?
  • Determine the appropriate behaviour that will be reinforced. This behaviour should meet the same specific need(s) as the challenging behaviour.
  • Customise and implement reinforcements that are suitable for the child’s age, current abilities and the severity of the targeted behaviour.
  • Monitor the child’s progress. If the child’s behaviour shows an improvement, the frequency of the reinforcement will be reduced.

There are four different types (also known as schedules) of Differential Reinforcement. Although these four types share the same goal, they differ in the types of situations the behaviour reinforcement is required and the way these techniques are carried out.

The four schedules of Differential Reinforcement are:

  • Differential Reinforcement for Alternative Behaviour (DRA)
  • Differential Reinforcement for Incompatible Behaviour (DRI)
  • Differential Reinforcement for Other Behaviour (DRO)
  • Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (DRL)

In the next few sections, we will dive deep into what each of these four techniques is and how they can be applied effectively to increase positive and appropriate behaviours.

Children Studying

Differential Reinforcement for Alternative Behaviour (DRA)

An alternative behaviour refers to an appropriate replacement behaviour. When applying DRA, reinforcement will be withheld from the problem behaviour and instead, will be given to more appropriate behaviour.

For example, Meiyi tends to interrupt conversations or lessons at school (problem behaviour). Her ABA therapist decides to apply DRA to reduce this disruptive behaviour. An alternative behaviour is introduced, whereby Meiyi has to raise her hands before she speaks (alternative behaviour). Each time Meiyi raises her hands instead of interrupting a lesson or conversation, her teachers or parents will praise her to reinforce this alternative behaviour.

Differential Reinforcement for Incompatible Behaviour (DRI)

An incompatible behaviour refers to a behaviour that cannot be performed at the same time as another behaviour. For example, a child is not able to sit and walk around the room simultaneously.

DRI is similar to DRA in that its main aim is to replace targeted undesirable behaviour(s) and reinforcements will be given to the identified appropriate behaviour. However, unlike DRA where the replacement behaviour is an alternative to meeting the same specific need or achieving the same objective as the problem behaviour, DRI identifies and determines an appropriate replacement behaviour that is incompatible (an opposite of) with or cannot be performed at the same time as the problem behaviour. Reinforcements will be given to this incompatible behaviour, leading to the decreased occurrence of the problem behaviour.

For example, George is often rude (problem behaviour) to his peers at school and even to his siblings. His ABA therapist implements the DRI procedure, where George has to speak kindly or give compliments instead (incompatible behaviour), since saying kind words cannot happen at the same time as speaking rudely. Whenever George talks in a rude manner, he will be ignored and instead redirected to the incompatible behaviour. He will only be given attention, through praises, when he speaks kindly, thus reinforcing this behaviour and reducing the challenging one.

To successfully implement the Differential Reinforcement for Alternative Behaviour (DRA) or Differential Reinforcement for Incompatible Behaviour (DRI), there are some considerations to bear in mind:

  • Reinforcement must be given for DRA and DRI to work effectively.
  • The reinforcement has to be one that can be easily given across different settings (home, centre, school or community) and people.
  • Consistency is key when giving or withholding reinforcements.
  • Use replacement behaviours that the child is already familiar with and has the ability to perform. In the event it is a behaviour that is new to the child, the adults have to explicitly teach the child the replacement behaviour, practising it often.
  • To increase the attractiveness of the replacement behaviour, the effort to perform it should be lesser as compared to the problem behaviour.
  • Similarly, the reinforcement given to the replacement behaviour should be equivalent or stronger than the one previously maintaining the problem behaviour.

Differential Reinforcement for Other Behaviour (DRO)

Other behaviour refers to any appropriate behaviours that are not considered the problem behaviour. When applying DRO, reinforcement for the challenging behaviour displayed will be withheld and given to other unspecified appropriate behaviours. What is unique about the DRO procedure is that a time interval is set when giving reinforcement, that is, the reinforcement is only given during a specific time or for a specific duration. The interval between the appropriate behaviour and reinforcement will be increased gradually as the child displays the appropriate behaviour successfully.

For example, Gracie tends to leave her seat and walk around (problem behaviour) whenever she has to complete her homework. Her ABA therapist uses DRO, whereby if Gracie stays seated (other behaviour) for a fixed duration of 5 minutes, she will be rewarded with her favourite snack. If the given 5 minutes is up and she is still walking around, there will be no reinforcement and the timer will reset.

Here are some considerations when implementing Differential Reinforcement for Other Behaviour (DRO):

  • Understand the time interval when the problem behaviour is displayed. For example, if the child starts exhibiting inappropriate behaviour every 10 minutes, the recommended interval to provide reinforcement should be every 5 minutes.
  • When reinforcing other behaviours, it is important to observe and ensure that other inappropriate behaviours are not reinforced in the process.
  • DRO can be tedious and time-consuming as effort and time are required to man the timer and provide the reinforcement. It is good to ensure that sufficient manpower and time are available when carrying out DRO.
  • It is also important to note that since reinforcement is only given after the timer goes off, problem behaviours that occurred during the set duration may not be properly addressed.

Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (DRL)

DRL differs from the other schedules in that the frequency of the behaviour, rather than the behaviour itself, is a concern. As its name implies, DRL focuses on reducing the frequency of a specific behaviour. The behaviour identified is usually positive or acceptable but the frequency of its occurrence may be causing disruption or inconvenience. Since the behaviour is appropriate, DRL aims to reduce the frequency and not remove the behaviour entirely. DRL intervenes by increasing the interval between occurrences.

For example, Ravi always washes his hands before his meals, which is a positive behaviour. However, he tends to wash his hands more than once in a go. To reduce this undesirable frequency, his ABA therapist implements DRL, whereby if Ravi washes his hands only once in a given time of 10 minutes, he will be rewarded with a break of his choice. After he has successfully washed his hands only once during this 10-minute duration, the time interval will be gradually increased. A consistent and appropriate reinforcement will be given throughout the learning process.

Here are some considerations when implementing Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (DRL):

  • As time is required for DRL to be effective, it is best not to use it for behaviour that needs to be reduced in a short time.
  • As DRL aims to reduce the frequency of the behaviour and not the behaviour itself, it is best to avoid implementing it for behaviours that can cause harm to self or others.

If you are a parent or teacher, we would recommend that you consult your child or student’s ABA therapist or an ABA practitioner if you intend to use any of the Differential Reinforcement schedules at home and/or school. To ensure and enhance the effectiveness of this strategy, it is important to understand the different schedules and considerations, know which is the most suitable schedule to be implemented, as well as when and how to implement Differential Reinforcement.

The incorrect use of the schedules and reinforcement may be counter-productive, resulting in undesirable outcomes. The ABA practitioner can help provide insights into the best Differential Reinforcement techniques and effective ways to implement them to help your child or student.

About Dynamics Behaviour Analysis

Our highly qualified ABA Therapists collectively have extensive experience working with children and adults from different countries and have been trained and worked with some of the best in ABA. Our team is led by a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA).

Adept at using best practices and research-based intervention strategies and procedures, our dynamic team is committed to providing personalised and data-driven programmes and care, and actively partnering with parents and caregivers to enable every child to reach their full potential, achieve goals and enjoy an empowering learning experience. Our sessions are typically held 1:1 for more intensive therapy, with in-depth assessments, individualised education programmes, ongoing evaluations and feedback. Furthermore, we offer convenience through various service delivery models. Our sessions can be conducted at our centre, your home or a combination of both (hybrid).

We also ensure seamless and hassle-free integrated care and support by working closely with experienced healthcare professionals of Dynamics Therapy Group’ in-house multidisciplinary team, such as Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Physiotherapists, Counsellors, Educational Therapists, and more.