Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement is an ABA concept that basically means you deliver varying levels/intensity of reinforcement contingent upon how the individual behaves or complies with whatever directive you have given. Differential reinforcement is also a shaping technique, where you shape a response by reinforcing certain behaviors and ignoring others.

Sound complicated? Its really not. Many parents and caregivers use differential reinforcement all the time without being aware of it. Here are a few examples:

-Your 14 month old toddler is beginning to move from babbling to making speech sounds and imitating your vocals. You provide eye contact, hugs, and kisses for clear speech sounds and no attention for hard to understand babbling.

- Your 15 year old often struggles to complete her homework on time. When she whines, complains about, or sighs loudly instead of doing her homework you ignore those behaviors. However when she is on task, quietly working, or asks you for help you provide large amounts of attention.

-Your 3 year old child who you are potty training runs to the potty and sits for 15 seconds, and then gets up without voiding. You reply with a high five and a smile. Later that day you are in a different part of the home and hear your child yell from the bathroom that he just peed in the potty. You run into the bathroom, and give the child a big tickle and proudly tell him what a big boy he is.

These are all examples of how you can use differential reinforcement. It just makes sense to give big reactions to big effort behaviors, and small reactions to small effort behaviors. When working as an ABA therapist it can sometimes be easy to overlook using differential reinforcement. There are two main ways I see differential reinforcement misused: reinforcement is given too freely regardless of the child's behavior (Over), or the reinforcement is too minimal for how the child is behaving (Under).

  1. Over: This usually looks like a therapist or parent who "gives away" reinforcement when the behavior isn't deserving. An example of this I just saw yesterday was when I was with a client at the mall. After being at the mall for a while, the child was ready to leave and he began to tantrum and scream. I have trained the parents in 3 Step Prompting, so the mother went directly into the procedure. On the 3rd step of the procedure the child suddenly reached out and knocked over a nearby display case of toys. The mother used prompting to get the child to pick up all of the toys, which was correct. However while the mother was doing this she was constantly speaking to the child saying statements such as, "You are cleaning up so nice"..."Good job!"...."Almost done sweetheart"...., etc. This child certainly was not doing a good job cleaning up, as all the cleaning had to be physically prompted and he attempted to bite his mother a few times. A better way to do this scenario using differential reinforcement would be to use prompting to have the child clean up the toys, while providing minimal to no eye contact or language. Then every few seconds remove your hand and see if the child will clean up independently. If not, that's okay. Just go back to physical prompting. If they do begin cleaning independently you can deliver praise such as "Good, keep going". The praise should be small, not large, because remember the child is still in the middle of a 3 step prompting procedure. You wouldn't shout "Hooray" because your child picks up 1 toy after knocking over 15 toys.
  2.    Under: This typically looks like a therapist or parent who focuses so much on the terminal goal of the skill  that they can't appreciate the baby steps, or it looks like reacting in a very monotonous, lifeless way to the child. Here is another example I just saw recently. I was doing a supervision session with a new therapist and she was running an ABA session. Whenever the child did something correctly the therapist would provide praise. Unfortunately the way this therapist would provide praise was to say in a bored sounding voice "Good job", with no change in her facial expression. This was the reinforcement the child received whether he did a puzzle, answered a question, imitated a motor task, or transitioned successfully. From the child's point of view, this is not motivating and it may also be confusing. For a child to understand effort the reinforcement must vary. If I give the same level of reinforcement to a child who independently ties his shoes, as I do to a child who needs me to complete 75% of the shoe tying  then what did that child just learn? The goal is to show the child that More Effort = More Reinforcement. This encourages the child to try hard and do their best. A better way to handle this scenario using differential reinforcement would be to change facial expression, animate your voice, and mix and vary the praise you use. I have a document I give to new therapists titled "100 Ways to Reinforce", because I understand it's sometimes hard to come up with exciting ways to give praise in a 2-3 hour session. You can get stuck on one verbal praise such as "Great" or "Awesome", and without realizing it go through a whole session having said the same verbal praise multiple times. This is an error we have all made at one point or another.

Using differential reinforcement during therapy sessions correctly will decrease boredom in the child, motivate the child to exert more effort, and help to encourage the child for effort based performance even if actual performance of the task was poor.

If I am working with a child and I see her struggling with the program and beginning to become frustrated, I will make a statement such as "You are working so hard!". I am not praising this child's performance...she isn't doing the task correctly, so I cant. What I am doing is providing encouragement, so she will continue to try. Now if after all that struggle the child suddenly completed the task independently, I'm going to basically throw a party, shout, clap, and provide huge reinforcement.


  1. Hi, Can you share with me what is your 3 steps of prompting? Thank you very much!!!!

    1. Here you go!



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