Differential reinforcement


​What is it?

Most people would understand the idea of getting more pay for a harder job, or extra points in diving competitions for more difficult dives. This is what differential reinforcement is all about – different types of reinforcement for different behaviours.

Reinforcement is a strategy that teachers use throughout their day, perhaps without even noticing. It involves doing something, or giving something to a student, (such as a sticker, positive attention, time with a favourite toy) that that increases the likelihood that a behaviour or skill will be repeated. Reinforcement is also an important element in teaching new skills. It is used after a student uses a new behaviour to encourage the student to use the behaviour or skill again.

Differential reinforcement is used to help reduce behaviours that impede participation and learning in the classroom and help to replace them with more successful skills.

Differential reinforcement is an important part of comprehensive behaviour support. It is likely that if you are using differential reinforcement, you will benefit from regional supports such as school guidance officers/counsellors.

Types of differential reinforcement

There are a number of types of differential reinforcement, each of which have slightly different procedures and aims.

  • Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviours (DRO) – behaviours other than the target (problem) behaviour are reinforced. The aim is to decrease the behaviour of concern by not reinforcing it – other behaviours are reinforced instead.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternate Behaviours (DRA) – appropriate alternative behaviours (such as putting up a hand to ask a question) are reinforced. The aim is that the student uses more of the appropriate alternative behaviour.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviours (DRI) – behaviours or skills that cannot be done at the same time as the behaviour of concern are reinforced. Examples include reinforcing sitting behaviour when the behaviour of concern is running around the classroom. The aim is to increase the desired behaviour.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Lesser Rates of Behaviour (DRL) – reinforcers are given when the behaviour of concern occurs with lower frequency than previously. The aim is to decrease the behaviour of concern.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Higher Rates of Behaviour (DRH) – reinforcers are provided when a preferred behaviour is observed at more often than previously. The aim is to increase the use of the preferred behaviour.

How do I use it?

Teachers are often experts at providing reinforcement to their students incidentally throughout the day. The use of reinforcement should also be carefully considered whenever a new behaviour or skill is being taught. The important elements of reinforcement include the following:

  1. Be clear about the behaviours you are reinforcing.
    • In general classroom activities, this can be closely tied to the classroom rules (see the Active teaching of rules factsheet) e.g. when a student follows a specific rule such as raising their hand to speak (a class rule).
    • When teaching a new skill or behaviour, this should be stated in specific, observable and measurable terms (e.g. the student will greet peers when they say hello rather than a non-specific goal such as the student will be nicer to peers).
    • In both situations, being specific about the behaviour or skill you want to see makes it possible to reinforce the behaviour when it is observed.
  2. Select the reinforcer. This should be individualised and meaningful to the student e.g. a younger child might be very keen to work hard to get a sticker but this will not be the case for a high school student. To understand what types of reinforcers to use, you can:
    • ask the student or their guardian about their preference
    • use likes/dislikes checklists.

    The types of reinforcement used can include:

    • social reinforcers such as facial expressions or praise, if these are meaningful to the student
    • material reinforcers such as access to activities
    • tangible or edible reinforcers such as stickers or food items
    • natural reinforcers such as getting a requested item, gaining positive social attention after initiating an interaction.
  3. Look for opportunities to reinforce the behaviour or skills you want to see.
    • This may involve setting up situations for the skill to be practiced and reinforcing the student each time it occurs (e.g. choose a time in a session to ask many simple questions to allow students to practice putting up their hands to speak and make a point of reinforcing each student or the whole class when this happens).
    • When teaching a new skill, teachers may need to set up opportunities to practice and make a point of reinforcing the new skill when it is used.
  4. When the behaviour or skill is observed, reinforce that skill by using one of the reinforcers.
    • Remember that different students will need different items and different ways of delivering the reinforcement (e.g. some students will be startled or distressed if a teacher is too loud, excited or enthusiastic in delivering a reinforcer. In these cases, the student may be less likely to use the skill again so that they avoid the fuss).
  5. Determine the type of differential reinforcement that is most suitable for the student, the behaviour and the environment. Support from behaviour support experts may be of help in this step.
  6. Teach or explain the skills that you would like to see the student use.
  7. Depending on the type of differential reinforcement you use, steps will include:
    • reinforce behaviours other than the target behaviour
    • reinforce skills that you are teaching to replace the target behaviour
    • provide reinforcement when the student uses the appropriate behaviour more often.
  8. If possible, it can be useful to collect some data before and after using differential reinforcement to help you tell whether the strategy is helping.

Age group

Differential reinforcement, like all elements of behaviourally based interventions, is appropriate for all ages with adjustments made to suit the student’s age and abilities.

High schoolYes

Where can I learn more?

  • Autism Internet Modules provide a way of learning online. You need to set up an account to access the modules. The modules are free. Reinforcement is one of the intervention strategies available as a module.
Last updated 25 January 2022