What Is Differential Reinforcement?

Appropriate behaviors

Differential reinforcement is an intervention whereby behavior X receives consequence X and behavior Y receives consequence Y. Often, behavior x is the target behavior (the behavior we want to decrease) and behavior y is the appropriate behavior (the behavior we want to increase). 

Differential Reinforcement Picture

The behaviors we want to decrease or increase are determined after a BCBA completes a functional behavioral assessment and the inter-disciplinary team decides goals of care.

The consequences are chosen based on (a) the functional behavioral assessment, (b) community resources and caregiver support, and (c) the science of behavior analysis.

There are several types of differential reinforcement — of an alternative behavior, another behavior, a high-rate behavior, a low-rate behavior, or of an incompatible behavior. The type of differential reinforcement intervention should be decided by your BCBA.

Clinical Examples:

Communication style of your business

Cursing For Attention
Rita has mild dementia and frequently curses at her daughter, and sometimes yells and walks off agitated. After a functional behavioral assessment, it is found that Rita’s cursing is influenced by access to attention from her daughter. The BCBA trains the caregiver to implement a differential reinforcement intervention — to provide attention after every appropriate vocalization and to walk away when Rita curses. Over time, Rita’s cursing decreases. 



Screaming For A Break
Elaine has severe dementia and intense pain from her arthritis. The physical therapist wants to keep her moving for as long as possible, but Elaine screams during exercises. Elaine can speak but screams instead, and these screams really bother the therapist. The BCBA implements a differential reinforcement intervention and trains the therapist to give Elaine a break when she says, “Stop.” If Elaine screams, the therapist stops the exercise and asks Elaine, “Say stop, please.” Elaine says stop more often in the future and screams less.



11Grunts For Activities
Mildred usually grunts to communicate, especially during recreational programming. The BCBA implements a differential reinforcement intervention and trains recreation staff in Picture Card Communication. If Mildred exchanges or points to a picture card, she gains access to preferred activities. If Elaine grunts, the staff member holds up the relevant communication card and asks, “What do you want?” Over time, Mildred learns to communicate with picture cards, and grunts less.