What is a DRO and How to Implement One

We BCBA’s love our acronyms!  Here’s another one for you: DRO.  This stands for the Differential Reinforcement of Other (behaviour).  It essentially means that we are providing reinforcement for THE LACK of a behaviour.

Why would a DRO be useful?

Many problem behaviours have a positive opposite that we can reinforce.  So instead of telling a child to “stop hitting”, we can remind him to “use nice hands”.  Or instead of saying, “stop screaming”, we can use a phrase like, “Use an indoor voice”. However, there are situations where it makes sense to reinforce the lack of a problem behaviour.  By using an appropriate time interval, you can reinforce a student for NOT showing a problem behaviour as long as the DRO is running.

We once worked with a student who was learning community skills.  However, when he was out in the community, he would make silly sounds that were interfering with his ability to attend, focus, and be a part of the community.  We instituted a DRO procedure that was in effect during community outings.  For every interval that he was NOT making the sounds, he would receive reinforcement.  Eventually, he was able to use this procedure to self-monitor his own behaviour in the community!

Note: A DRO should be a part of a greater treatment package with teaching and reinforcement of replacement behaviours.  As with any treatment procedure, a cost/benefit analysis should be done and all participants should be in agreement that this is the best way to target this goal.

How can you implement a DRO?

Step 1: Define the Behaviour

Be very clear in the behaviours and non-behaviours that are begin targeted with this procedure.  We are mostly reinforcing the lack of a behaviour but what things are included and what are not? If the student attempts to engage in a problem behaviour but is unsuccessful – does that count?  What is the sound the student is making is so quiet that it is hard to hear?  Make sure that the person implementing the DRO is very clear on what behaviours to reset the timer for and what behaviours to reinforce.

Step 2: Get Baseline Data

Baseline how long the negative behaviour lasts for but also how long in between incidents of negative behaviour.   For example, if a student is giggling during classroom periods when he is supposed to be quiet, we can time the interval between giggling fits. We can also time how long the giggling fits last. 

Step 3: Choose an Interval to Start With

The average number in between each episode is the interval to start with.  If the student is quiet and on task for about 3 minutes in between each giggling fit, then we would start with a 3 minute interval and build from there.

Step 4: Reinforce

This should be powerful and even better if it’s used only for this purpose (careful of satiation!).  Explain to the child, verbally or with a visual, what the expectation is and how to access the reinforcer.  For example, “First quiet sitting, then bubbles.” When the timer goes off and the student hasn’t engaged in any of the defined behaviours, reinforce!  Then, start the interval again and another opportunity for reinforcement begins again.

Step 5: Resetting the Timer

If the student engages in the defined problem behaviour in the middle of the interval, you want to stop, redirect the student according to the behaviour protocol without giving attention to the behaviour and reset the timer.  The student doesn’t receive reinforcement and has to start the interval again.

Warning: Be very careful with behaviours that are attention-maintained.  A DRO can sometimes be reinforcing – even mentioning that you’re resetting the timer is the negative attention that they were seeking!

Step 6: Monitor Progress

A DRO is very cumbersome and not ideal for a student to be on a very small interval for very long.  We want the student to be able to move as quickly as possible through the steps so that they can get to an interval that is more natural and manageable.  Ongoing data should be taken and progress monitored and updated as needed.

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