Differential Reinforcement and ABA Therapy

Therapist should think of reinforcement as part of shaping a desired response. In the teaching phase, reinforcement is delivered in large amounts for close approximation.

Once the child can approximate some part of a correct response with the use of a prompt, the therapist then “ups the anty” by giving a lesser type of reinforcement (“good job”) and fading their prompt until the child responds correctly. For this response, reinforcement is delivered in larger quantities (when compared to the teaching phase) in order to increase the likelihood of the behavior.

This teaching strategy is called differential reinforcement. If the child responds independently without any assistance from the therapist, the quality and quantity of reinforcement is stronger than reinforcement at prompted trials.

Differential Reinforcement:
Using stronger reinforcement for independent success and using lesser reinforcement for non-success. Think of Differential Reinforcement as giving EXCELLENT feedback to an EXCELLENT response, GREAT feedback to a GREAT response, OKAY feedback to an OKAY response, and CORRECTIVE feedback to an incorrect or non-response that is poor in attention and motivation.

Choose your EXCELLENT reinforcer by finding food or items that the child loves but rarely gets. If you choose a food or item that the child normally gets, it will not be a powerful motivator for EXCELLENT responses and the child will not comply to the instruction given.

For anything less than an EXCELLENT response, the child will receive other reinforcers that will make him or her happy and content.

Remember that therapists need to avoid satiation by not always giving one type of food or item for responses. Therapist should have a variety of food and toys that the child absolutely loves and use them throughout their session. You can decide what type of food and toys to use to shape a desired behavior by doing a Reinforcement Sampling where you hold up two objects and see what the child chooses. From there you pair the chosen item with another item and see what they choose. From this sampling, you can get an idea of what the child really wants at that time.

An Example of Teaching the Label, “Apple” in an Expressive (Object) Labels Program by using differential reinforcement

If a therapist wants to teach the child the label, “apple,” the therapist or team must first decide what a correct response is. For verbal children it will be the full word, for non-verbal children, it may be picking the correct PEC, and for children who have a hard time with pronunciation, an approximation to the label can be considered a correct response.

During each teaching trial, a therapist must deliver a consequence for the child’s behavior. If the consequence is correct, reinforcement is given.

First Sitting:

Therapist: “What is it?—APPLE” (APPLE is a verbal prompt- voice is slightly above normal speaking voice)

Child: “Apple”

Therapist: “Good! That’s apple!” (reinforcement is appropriate for a full prompted response)

Therapist: “What is it?—Apple” (voice is normal speaking voice when giving verbal prompt)

Child: “Apple”

Therapist: “All right, that’s an apple!” (repeating the label is called an expressive follow-up and can be used to help learn the label)

Therapist: “What is it?—-Ahh…” (normal speaking voice when delivering a partial verbal prompt)

Child: “Apple”

Therapist: (lifts child up in the air, or gives food, toy etc..) “You did it! It’s apple!”

Therapist lets child go for a correct response with a faded prompt.

Second Sitting:

Therapist: “What is it?—Ahh” (whispers verbal prompt)

Child: “Apple”

Therapist: “Good!” (gives child tickles or some form of physical reinforcement for a correct response with a faded prompt)

Reinforcement at this level is quick as the pace of drills is essential to catch children “off guard.” If you run your drills fast, you can easily fade your prompt completely and hope that the child will automatically say the label. This method is called behavioral momentum.

Therapist: “What is it?—therapist mouths the sound “Ahh”

Child: “Apple”

Therapist: “Holy-Molly!”

Therapist: “What is it?

Child: “Apple”

Therapist: “Woo-Hoo, that’s apple!” let the child go play/ give food/ special toy.

Children learn at different paces, so this example can be stretched to several days at a certain level of prompting, such as a verbal prompt of, “Ah” over two or three days.

Here is an old video of a child learning some basic sounds using the so-called “lovaas method” of language acquisition.

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  1. Hello, I hope you are not offended, but using differing levels of reinforcement for more independent responses is not differential reinforcement. This is implementing the principle of size or appropriateness (one of the four principles for effective reinforcement). Differential reinforcement is a very specific process involving two physically different behaviors, in which each behavior is targeted differently,(typically with an incompatable behavior being reinforced, and a behavior excess on extinction, for example in a DRI). If you would like more information and to correct your site, feel free to contact me at the e-mail above.

  2. Thanks but Differential Reinforcement during Discrete Trial Teaching and in ABA in general means that you are reinforcing appropriate behaviors differentially in order to shape more desirable responses. So when you ask a child a behavior he should know, you reinforce accordingly if the behavior is correct and is done with great effort. If the behavior is done sloppily (like in printing) then you differentially reinforce (“good try- let’s try that again”) and so on.

    I am aware of behavior interventions that use differential reinforcement (DRO, DRI, DRA) – whereby you ignore inappropriate behavior and reinforce appropriate behavior, thus showing the child, differentially, what the expectations are.