Differential Reinforcement: The Secret Behind Well-Behaved Children


Differential reinforcement is a method for encouraging appropriate or desired behaviors, and can be used with great effect when working with children. Differential Reinforcement is a strategy derived from the science of behavior and is often used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).  It involves reinforcing the positive behavior rather than an undesired behavior that may have, in the past, achieved the same outcome.

The differential reinforcement strategy is based on the principle that people tend to continue behaviors that are rewarded and discontinue behaviors or actions that do not receive the desired response. Think back to a time when you tried something one way that did not work, but then used another method that did.  Aren’t you more likely to continue the second method?  Differential Reinforcement is highly recommended by ABA therapists as an effective strategy for encouraging beneficial behaviors because it is not intrusive and does not depend on punishment. 

There are different types of differential reinforcement; the effectiveness of each type depends on the unique personality and learning history of the child or individual to which it is being applied, as well as the context or situation where it is being applied. So, parents, teachers, or caregivers, have to observe and understand which type of differential reinforcement will be the best route to get a positive outcome for all parties in that environment and context. All of the different types may be used with the same individual in different circumstances.

What is Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors or DRI? 

DRI is the reinforcement of behaviors that cannot be done simultaneously with the targeted, undesired behavior. It focuses on engaging the child with another activity to prevent indulging in the maladaptive behavior. 

Incompatible behaviors are activities that cannot be performed together. For example, you cannot use your hands to hold an item, or say, water a plant, at the same time you are using them to hit another person.  In order to complete one action, the other has to be paused or discontinued, which hopefully leads to discouragement and movement away from the undesired activity. 

For example: a teacher does not want one of her students to sleep in her class. So she asks him to read the text of the book. As reading and sleeping cannot be done simultaneously, i.e. they are incompatible, the student will end up staying awake throughout the class. This way the undesired behavior (sleeping in class) is discouraged by involving the boy in another activity (reading out loud) that prevents him from indulging in it. 

What is Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors or DRA?

DRA reinforces alternative or another behavior to discourage the undesired behavior in a child (that is not being reinforced). Alternative behavior is any other task or activity that becomes preferable for the child due to the incentive (positive reinforcement) involved. 

Difference between DRI and DRO

DRA is different from DRI as the undesired and alternative behaviors are not incompatible. This means the child can perform them simultaneously. However, due to the reward mechanism, people choose to drop the undesired behavior and focus on the alternative instead. 

For example: A mother wants to discourage her daughter from watching television while she eats because then she takes too long to finish her meal. So, she can offer to let her daughter play with her makeup if she finishes her meal quickly, thereby reinforcing focusing on the meal rather than on the television. 

So, the girl in this example can still eat and watch television at the same time, but she will choose to focus on finishing her meal because she is motivated by a reward: getting to play with her mother’s makeup products. 

What is Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior or DRO? 

In DRO, reinforcement or reward is provided only when a targeted undesired behavior is not displayed for a specific duration or at a specific moment. 

There are two types of DRO 

  1. Interval DRO: Reinforcement is provided after the child does not indulge in the undesired behavior for a specified period. 
  2. Momentary DRO: Reinforcement is provided when a child refrains from displaying the undesired behavior in a specific situation. 

For example: A mother rewards her children with ice cream because they refrained from fighting with each other while she attended an important online meeting. This is interval DRO as the children complied with their mother’s request for the entire duration of her meeting. 

An example of a momentary DRO is a young boy resisting the urge to throw a tantrum when instructed to leave the toy store. Since he listened to his parents without breaking down, he was rewarded with extra screen time. 

Suggestions for Making Differential Reinforcement Effective

Parents, teachers, or therapists have to observe some nuances when implementing differential reinforcement. As  each individual is unique, ABA therapy is not one-size-fits-all. How children respond to differential reinforcement can vary and may or may not be effective unless applied correctly. 

There are steps care providers can take to increase the probability of the child responding well to differential reinforcement. 

Here are quick tips to remember to make the application of differential reinforcement more effective : 

Tip for DRI

The incompatible behavior should be something the child can already do successfully. This way, they will not be discouraged by difficulty in performing the behavior. 

Tip for DRA 

The selected alternative behavior should require less effort than the targeted maladaptive behavior. If the alternative behavior is physically or emotionally taxing, the chances of children choosing it are slim.

Tip for DRO

Intervals should be increased gradually. It is better to start small, with five-minute intervals, for example, to provide children with a sense of accomplishment so they get motivated to display the desired behavior. Parents can reach a point when they applaud their kid for finishing an entire meal, but first, they must celebrate their child for finishing each bite.

As always, non-ABA professionals should consult with a BCBAⓇ (Board Certified Behavior AnalystⓇ) before attempting this or other ABA strategies to ensure the function of the behavior is understood and that safeguards are followed.


Differential reinforcement is a preferred and effective strategy for increasing prosocial behaviors at the expense of problematic behaviors. The type of differential reinforcement selected depends on the nature of the child in question and the nature of the situation. However, since this method is nonintrusive and involves rewards, it boosts confidence in children and is generally acceptable.


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