Differential Reinforcement – FAQs About Autism

On this website, there is a detailed guide on how to use Differential Reinforcement for children with Autism. Based on that guide, we have received many follow-up questions from parents. In this thread, we will address the most commonly asked questions on this subject. If you have more questions, add them to this thread.

Q. How do I ensure that an incompatible/alternative behavior will occur outside of the reinforcement schedule?

A. The question of generalization is an important consideration because the ultimate goal is to have the learner independently emit the appropriate, target behavior instead of the problem behavior. There are several factors to remember when deciding what target behavior will be most suitable to teach and most likely to sustain.

  • First, the target behavior should be within the learner’s repertoire of behaviors, also known as a “maintenance” skill.
  • Second, teaching a “maintenance” skill will allow the learner to emit the target behavior more regularly, which will produce more reinforcement to the learner.

The target behavior should also hold relevance and meaning to the learner’s daily life and interactions. Teaching a skill that cannot be supported by the learner’s natural environment is setting up for a failed plan and frustrated learner.

Q. What is the difference between DRI and DRA?

A. Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI) delivers reinforcement for a behavior that is topographically dissimilar to the problem behavior. In this way, the replacement behavior and the problem behavior cannot be displayed at the same time. Examples might include reinforcing in-seat behavior instead of out-of-seat behavior or working on homework instead of sleeping at a desk.

The replacement behavior targeted is one that is incompatible or cannot be simultaneously performed with the problem behavior. Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) reinforces the occurrence of a target behavior that is different from the problem behaviour, but not necessarily topographically incompatible.

For example, teaching a child to ask for items instead of hitting another child would not prevent both behaviors from occurring at the same time, but strengthening the former helps to minimize the latter from occurring.

Although both are commonly used to teach a variety of behaviors, some factors can influence effective use. As mentioned above, think about what target behavior is within the learner’s repertoire, that the learner uses with consistency, that facilitates more skill development, and that can be supported in the learner’s natural environment.

Q. The DRO schedule has not produced a reduction in the problem behavior. What might be the reason(s) for this?

A. There are several reasons that a DRO schedule may not be effective. Some suggestions to consider are:

  • Make sure that the selected DRO time interval is consistent with the learner’s performance during the baseline condition. This means that the time interval cannot differ from whatever was recorded during the baseline condition. If the learner tolerated 5 minutes of staying seated before getting up to run around the room, then the initial time interval to refrain from engaging in the problem behavior is established at 5 minutes or less. If the learner can refrain from body rocking for one-minute, setting the time interval at one-minute or even 45 seconds will be the place to start.
  • Keep data on the learner’s response to the program to determine the size of change that can be tolerated without disrupting teaching. If behavior continues to worsen, perhaps this change is in response to the larger DRO interval, and the size of the interval should be decreased until the behavior is again under control. The DRO interval can then be lengthened in smaller, more gradual steps to maintain control.
  • Examine the reinforcement that is delivered at the end of the DRO interval. Reinforcement should only be delivered when the problem behavior did not occur during the interval, as well as no other inappropriate behavior. It is important that the learner not receive reinforcement from another source, otherwise there is less reason for the learner to cooperate with the intervention program.
  • Evaluate how rewarding or motivating the reinforcer is to the learner. If the reward is not important or worthwhile to the learner, he/she will be less likely to work for it.
  • Combine DRO with other reductive procedures or intervention strategies to increase its practical value. Observe whether there are other inappropriate behaviors that might need to be extinguished or addressed, additional teaching systems such as self-management that might assist, or consequences that might need to be added to successfully eliminate problem behaviors.

Q. When is it appropriate to use DRL?

A. Differential reinforcement of low rates of responding (DRL) is an appropriate procedure to use when the goal is not to eliminate a behavior but to reduce its occurrence to a more acceptable level. There are many behaviors that when used in excess, might be irritating or annoying, and DRL offers effective strategies to reduce these behaviors to tolerable rates.

Examples may include incessant question-asking, talking out loud, rapid eating, or frequent hair brushing. Keep in mind that this procedure requires constant observation and timing and frequent reinforcement, which might be hard to implement in a room full of learners. It may require additional personnel, especially in the initial stages.

Q. Is there one differential reinforcement procedure that is better than the others?

A. The short answer is that each comes with advantages and disadvantages. DRI/DRA and DRO aim to strengthen behaviors to replace an inappropriate or problematic behavior, whereas DRL attempts to reduce but not eliminate a behavior. DRO does not specify which behaviors to reinforce, but DRO does allow a wider number of behaviors to be reinforced.

It is possible, then, for DRO to develop and strengthen collateral, or non-targeted, behaviors that are important for the learner to sustain progress. The major difference is that with DRI/DRA, the adult measures the development of the incompatible/alternative behavior and target behavior, whereas with DRO, the learner’s behavior (other than the behavior selected for reduction) determines which alternate behavior will be targeted and measured.

Overall, the decision of which differential reinforcement to use should be made by observing and collecting data of the problem behavior across relevant people, environments, and contexts and also determined by the type of replacement behavior (if appropriate) to introduce in lieu of the problem behavior. Finally, the parents and learner (if appropriate) should also be interviewed to determine which procedure would enable the most significant positive change to occur and lead to an enhanced quality of life for the entire family.

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