DRA: Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior

Today’s post is a bit technical, but if you hang in there I guarantee it will be worth it.

I already wrote a post about Differential Reinforcement, which is helpful for trying to understand DRA. DRA, or Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior, is an ABA technique used to reduce problem behaviors. ABA professionals always seek to accomplish behavior reduction through ethical, reinforcement based methods first. In other words we don’t just seek to make a problem behavior stop. We ask ourselves “What can I teach this child to do instead of this problem behavior?”
DRA is a great technique (when part of a comprehensive behavior plan) to intervene on behaviors such as aggression, self-stimulatory behaviors, perseveration, or tantrumming. It is typical that a DRA is combined with Extinction. Anyone who wants to reduce or eliminate problem behavior can benefit from an understanding of DRA.

So what is DRA?

DRA- Reinforcement of an alternative behavior while withholding reinforcement for the inappropriate behavior.

This basically means that you put an undesired behavior on extinction, while simultaneously giving reinforcement to an appropriate behavior.

Here are a few examples:

  • Child A has a problem behavior of mouthing non-food items (toys, pennies, fingers, etc) to gain sensory stimulation. Every time child A attempts to place a non-food item in her mouth, you block this behavior and redirect her to a sensory chewie toy. As child A places the chewie in her mouth, you provide verbal praise.
  • Child B has a problem behavior of elopement from the work table to escape a demand. When child B attempts to stand up at the work table, you physically prompt her to sit down and immediately hand her an “I want a break” card. When child B gives the card back to you, you provide  praise and allow child B a short break.

You may have already noticed two important factors when implementing a DRA:
    1. You need to know the function of the problem behavior
    2. You need to reinforce the alternative behavior

 It isn’t enough to simply redirect the child to a different behavior at random. That is not implementing a DRA technique. If the child is mouthing toys and pennies to get sensory stimulation and you block the mouthing and give the child a book to read, how does that address their sensory need? It doesn’t. What will happen is the child will try to mouth the book, or they will engage with it for a few seconds and then throw it down.
It also isn’t enough to redirect the child to a functionally similar alternative behavior with no reinforcement. While the behavior is inappropriate or maladaptive from our point of view, to the child the behavior they are engaging in works, it’s effective, and it’s efficient. It is only to us, as clinicians and parents, that the behavior is deemed unacceptable. To bring about lasting behavior change you must reinforce the alternative behavior and make it more appealing than the inappropriate behavior. You always want to create motivation for the child to engage in the behavior that is more appropriate.

Other important terms to know include DRO, Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior, and DRI, Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior. Put simply, DRO means you give reinforcement to behaviors other than the problem behavior. DRI means you reinforce appropriate behaviors that are incompatible with the problem behavior, or you reinforce an appropriate behavior that cannot be done at the same time as the problem behavior.
 It isn’t always easy to implement Differential Reinforcement, because sometimes it is hard to "catch the child being good" or because it may be difficult to identify an alternative behavior that is functionally similar. 
For example, it can be challenging to find a functionally similar replacement behavior for masturbation. A better strategy is to teach the individual about public vs. private behavior, and redirect them away from sexual stimulation in front of others (exercise, go for a walk, excuse themselves to their room, etc.). 

DRA is a wonderful ABA tool that can produce quick and significant changes in behavior. In my opinion, it is also easy for most parents to implement. For example:

  •  Nick has a perseveration behavior of excessively talking about dinosaurs. Anytime Nick wants to initiate a social interaction, he walks up to someone and begins a monologue all about dinosaurs. Nick’s parents place the dinosaur perseveration on extinction, and reinforce Nick for appropriately initiating a conversation by asking social questions such as “What did you do today?”


  1. I really appreciate this site

  2. This is pretty much the most useful blog I have ever used. We are pretty sure our 3 and a half year old son has ASD but waiting for diagnosis. ABA seems by far the way to in helping him and your blog is the clearest most informative source I have seen. Thank you!!!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I have found that when people remain "usable", they are likely to be "useful" :-)

      Good luck to you and your son,


  3. I am doing my masters in Disability Studies/ABA and I found ur website very helpful!!!Congratulations!Amazing job!!!!

    1. I second that notion getting my Masters in ABA. This blog is fantastic for referencing things my professor doesn't explain well.

  4. Thank you so much for your help! I will hopefully be able to implement both DRA and behavioral momentum and get results that I can share. I sent your blog link to everyone in my agency and they love it! Thanks again!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Thanks for the help, your explanations were very useful for guiding me on my paper with all the DR's


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