Navigating the world of Applied Behavior Analysis techniques can often feel like a complex maze. Among these techniques is a common approach known as DRO — Differential Reinforcement of Other (Behavior).
This post aims to demystify DRO, highlight when and where (and if) it can be beneficial, and provide a guide on how to implement this technique effectively.
Whether you’re an ABA practitioner, a parent of a child with behavior challenges, or someone interested in learning more about behavioral intervention strategies, this comprehensive guide will shed light on the theoretical foundations of DRO, compare it with other ABA techniques, and delve into its practical application.
We’ll also discuss the benefits of choosing DRO (are there any?), identify suitable situations for its use, and outline the steps to implement it successfully.
What is DRO?
Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior, or DRO, is an ABA technique used to reduce or eliminate challenging behaviors by reinforcing any behavior other than the negative behavior. The goal is to encourage a more desirable and appropriate behavior instead of a challenging one.
When implementing a DRO in ABA, teaching replacement behavior is a must! Remember, figuring out the function of behavior and implementing a function-based approach still needs to happen, even if a DRO is being used.
Often, while using a DRO, challenging behavior is “put on extinction.” It’s ignored. In Today’s ABA, we respond to all attempts to communicate. Extinction is not the gold standard in ABA. Instead, find out why our student(s) are engaging in challenging behavior, what they are trying to communicate, and teach those skills.
Theoretical Foundations of DRO
DRO is rooted in the principles of operant conditioning — specifically reinforcement. It leverages the idea that reinforcing a different behavior can decrease the frequency of the undesired behavior.
By providing positive reinforcement for other behavior, individuals are encouraged to engage in that behavior instead of the one we wish to diminish.
DRO vs. Other ABA Techniques
Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)
DRA can also be used when a child exhibits challenging behavior. The idea is to teach the child alternative behaviors that will meet the same reinforcement needs as the problem behavior (i.e., after function has been determined).
This technique is beneficial and can positively change a child’s behavior. However, it requires careful observation and monitoring of the child’s behavior to evaluate whether their alternative behavior effectively replaces the problem behavior.
Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)
DRI is a technique used when a child engages in an undesirable behavior, and the goal is to teach them a replacement behavior that is incompatible with the challenging behavior — for instance, teaching a child to hum quietly when they get excited instead of screaming.
This technique works best when the replacement behavior entirely replaces the existing behavior, making it impossible for the child to engage in both behaviors simultaneously.
Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Responding (DRL)
DRL is a technique used when the goal is to systematically reduce the frequency of problematic behavior. In DRL, reinforcement is given when the challenging behavior is only displayed a set number of times within a specific time period. Then that set number of times systematically decreases over time.
For instance, if a student calls out during circle time an average of 10 times per period, provide reinforcement if the student calls out less than 10 times. Then, over time, reinforce if the student calls out 9 times or less, then 8 times, and so on.
This technique works best for behaviors that are not necessarily problematic, but it would be best if they occurred less frequently.
Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)
DRO is similar to other differential reinforcement techniques but stands out by reinforcing any behavior other than the target.
This technique is only useful in situations where the targeted behavior is difficult to replace or not safe to interrupt. DRO requires continuous monitoring of the child’s behavior to ensure that the reinforcement is only given to behavior other than the targeted one.
We can’t stress this enough: do a functional assessment before implementing any treatment to determine the function of the behavior and what your student is trying to communicate. Most times, implementing Functional Communication Training may be enough.
What Are the Benefits of Choosing DRO?
So why would you choose DRO versus other ABA options? Honestly, we don’t! DRO doesn’t typically target the function of the behavior.
The BACB code of ethics (section 2.14) states that BCBAs need to implement treatment procedures on assessment results and prioritize positive reinforcement procedures.
As ABA professionals, it’s not good enough to simply put challenging behavior “on extinction” without teaching replacement behavior. Simply reinforcing “other behavior” doesn’t always ensure that function has been determined, nor does it ensure that replacement behavior is being taught.
Therefore, only once the why has been determined and replacement behavior is programmed, can a DRO even begin to be beneficial.
Benefits of a DRO (once replacement skills are in place)
- Flexibility: DRO allows for a wide range of replacement behaviors, making it adaptable to various contexts.
- Positive Approach: It promotes positive reinforcement, which can be more motivating and less aversive than punishment-based strategies.
- Reduction of Undesirable Behaviors: DRO can effectively decrease problematic behaviors when implemented correctly.
Identifying Suitable Situations for DRO
DRO is appropriate for situations where a specific behavior needs to be reduced or eliminated, and there is a clear, observable alternative behavior that can be reinforced. Typical scenarios include addressing self-injurious behaviors, repetitive behaviors, or inappropriate vocalizations.
How to Approach the Components of DRO
Is the Behavior Worth Treating?
Before beginning, ask yourself and your team:
- Is this behavior something that is crucial to decrease?
- Is it harming the student or others?
- Is it interfering with learning?
If the answer to these questions is no, then let it go and move on to teaching something more critical. If the answer is yes, rule out medical and setting events before you begin.
Establish Baseline Behavior
Before implementing DRO, it’s crucial to accurately define and measure the problem behavior. This serves as a baseline for evaluating the effectiveness of the intervention.
Find out the why! Do a functional assessment to understand the function of the targeted behavior.
Select Replacement Behavior
Identify a feasible behavior for the individual to engage in that is incompatible with the unwanted behavior. This replacement behavior will be reinforced.
Set the Reinforcement Schedule
DRO can be implemented using different schedules, such as time-based (i.e., reinforcing the alternative/replacement behavior every minute) or interval-based (i.e., reinforcing the alternative behavior at fixed intervals). The choice depends on the individual’s needs and the nature of the behavior.
Identify Appropriate Reinforcers
Selecting meaningful reinforcers is essential for the success of DRO. These can include tokens, praise, access to preferred activities, or tangible rewards. The reinforcer should be contingent on the absence of the undesired behavior.
5 Steps to Implement DRO
1. Behavioral Assessment
Before implementing a DRO plan, conduct a thorough behavioral assessment to understand the behavior and its triggers. This will help identify the specific behavior(s) that needs to be addressed.
A functional behavior assessment (FBA) can be conducted to determine the function of the behavior and create a comprehensive behavior plan.
2. Collaboration & Consistency
Collaboration with relevant members like parents, caregivers, or teachers ensures consistency. All parties involved should know the plan, the rewards, and the protocol for handling challenging behavior.
Collaboration ensures the plan is implemented with fidelity, regardless of the setting or situation.
3. Choose an Interval to Begin
The interval is the average time between each episode of the problematic behavior. For instance, if a student is quiet and on task for about 3 minutes between each behavioral outburst, then we would start with a 3-minute interval and build from there.
It’s essential to start with an achievable interval and gradually increase as the student reaches mastery.
4. Reset the Timer
Suppose a student engages in the defined problem behavior in the middle of the interval. In that case, you want to stop, redirect the student according to the behavior protocol without giving attention to the behavior, and reset the timer.
This ensures that the reward is given only for engaging in the desired behavior for the entire interval and not for engaging in the problematic behavior.
5. Data Collection
Take ongoing data to monitor progress and update the plan as needed. A DRO plan can be time-consuming and tedious, mainly when the interval is small. The aim is for the student to move as quickly as possible through the steps to get to an interval that is more natural and manageable.
Challenges & Considerations with DRO
While DRO can be highly effective, it’s essential to address potential challenges, including:
- Generalization: Ensuring that the individual uses the replacement behavior consistently across different environments.
- Identifying Reinforcers: Some individuals may require careful assessment to identify meaningful reinforcers.
- Maintenance: Continuously monitoring and reinforcing the replacement behavior, even after the initial success, is vital.
Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO) is a term that is used often in Applied Behavior Analysis. But it’s essential to understand what it means and how to implement it appropriately.
When a function-based approach is used and replacement behavior is taught, DROs can lead to significant improvements in behavior and the overall quality of life for individuals with behavioral challenges.
Remember that professional guidance and ongoing evaluation are essential when implementing ABA techniques like DRO to ensure the best outcomes for those you support.