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Using Differential Reinforcement in ABA to Shape Behavior


We want to use the principles of ABA to teach our students to have more choices and to develop independence. Today we’re going to talk about using differential reinforcement in ABA to shape behavior so that you can incorporate client assent and choice within your sessions. 

I’ve been to a lot of classrooms where even the youngest kids are being made to sit during circle time even though they don’t want to be there. There is some sort of reinforcement system, but you just know that the student does not want to be there. Something that we can do is differentially reinforce – or shape – our students’ behavior for coming to join the lesson. 

We’ll have students who don’t have the skill of sitting for circle time or a lesson.  If this is the case, they should be able to access low-level reinforcers of free play (instead of circle time).  They don’t have to join.  However, if they do join, they should get really fun things! All of the musical instruments, the bubbles, and all the really fun toys are only available at circle time. This helps to shape their behavior of wanting to be present for the lesson. The exciting things happen at the lesson or the circle time, but they if they don’t join, no big deal.  They can still play, but the play won’t be as fun.

What is Differential Reinforcement?

A long time ago, I was taught that differential reinforcement works by giving a lot of reinforcement for a skill that you are seeing that’s brand new, and giving only a little bit of reinforcement for something that’s prompted. While this is true, let’s take that further. How can we incorporate free choice into ABA sessions? Back in 2002, I did a research article with Hannah Hoch. We had a whole bunch of preferred items at one table with a peer, and just some neutral items at another table without a peer. What we found, time and time again, is that the students we were working with went to the peer because there were preferred items available if they did.

And that’s what we want! Now let’s think about using differential reinforcement in this way during ABA programs. For instance, say you’re trying to get a client to try new foods. Instead of just telling the student to eat something and offering them one form of reinforcement, you can give them a choice. They can eat what they want, like chicken fingers or pizza, and the reinforcement is that they get what they want to eat.  Or they could try a new food and get a really exciting reinforcer afterward. 

This concept of differential reinforcement can also be applied to a client who doesn’t want to do after-school tutoring.  By using a token system, the student can choose to do nothing and not get any reinforcement (and that’s okay!).  However, if they do choose to do some easy programs, they can earn a point for each program. If they choose to do more difficult programs, they can earn even more points on a weighted scale. Then they can look at a menu to cash in their points for preferred items/activities.

Knowing what a client finds truly exciting as preferred items/activities is key to using differential reinforcement to shape positive behavior. Download this free reinforcement checklist so you can find out what will work for your clients!

Differential Reinforcement and Non-Contingent Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement, if done properly, should incorporate choice and non-contingent reinforcement.  What?!!  We’ve determined that differential reinforcement does not just mean giving a lot of reinforcement for a job well done and only a little reinforcement for baby steps along the way.  Taking that one step further, by giving our clients the right to choose whether they want to do the easy stuff or the hard stuff, we teach them independent thinking.  Either way, they still receive access to reinforcement (non-contingent), but, by completing the tough things, they receive better stuff. 

By offering choice, we don’t need to withhold all reinforcement.  You can have different schedules and different amounts of reinforcement available for various skills and teaching programs.   Our students not only are allowed to have choice, they should have the choice to say, “Today I’m not in the mood to do this stuff, so I’m okay with just chilling and not getting all the stuff that I usually get.” Or “Today I’m in the mood to work hard. And I know that there’s something in it for me if I do work harder.”

In summary, we discussed using differential reinforcement to shape behavior.  We also discussed incorporating choice and client assent into programming.  Preferred items and activities should always be available.  However, it’s how you assign weight to those activities that determines client buy-in on more difficult skills.  Designate more preferred items and activities for more difficult tasks and less fun for things that aren’t so hard for the student. 

For more information on using differential reinforcement in ABA, claim your free reinforcement checklist download below!

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