differential reinforcement

ABA Therapy Insight: Differential Reinforcement, Explained

Differential reinforcement is a technique use by our Akron ABA therapy team to reinforce the behavior we want to see while not reinforcing the behavior we want to extinguish. It works well for children on the autism spectrum when applied appropriately and consistently, but it can work well for people of all ages and ability in other ways too.

For instance, let’s say a teacher in an elementary school classroom wants the students to stop shouting out the answers and raise their hands instead. She could admonish every student who calls out, or she might be more effective by not providing those who do with any attention at all. Meanwhile, she reinforces the preferred behavior of raising your hand before speaking by only calling on/praising those students who do so (i.e., “Nice job raising your hand, Tyrone. What’s your answer?”).

A teacher who uses this technique is essentially using the differential reinforcement method that we use in ABA therapy.

How is Differential Reinforcement Used in ABA?

Differential reinforcement will look a bit different in ABA therapy than it does in a neurotypical classroom. For one thing, it will be carefully tailored to the individual child. That’s because what motivates each child may be different. For some, it could be a preferred snack. For others, it may be verbal praise. And still others might be compelled to respond to certain activities or games for reinforcement.

Whatever it is, the basic idea is that positive reinforcement is offered after a behavior with the goal of increasing the future probability that it will happen again under the same or similar circumstances. We focus on future probability because we can’t change something that’s already happened. We want to impact what is going to happen next time. If the preferred behavior doesn’t occur, we don’t reinforce it.

Often, our ABA therapy team is working on other skills with the client while we use differential reinforcement. For instance, let’s say we’re working on identifying object functions. We’d only provide positive reinforcement if the response is correct.


  • Therapist: What do we use a toothbrush for?
  • Patient: To brush hair.
  • Do not reinforce.


  • Therapist: What do we use a comb for?
  • Patient: To brush hair.
  • Therapist: High five! You got it! We DO use a comb to brush our hair!

In order for these to be effective, we identify the unwanted response/behavior and identify appropriate, alternative, preferred behaviors we want to see in its place. This is great for teaching adaptive skills.

We might also tailor our differential reinforcement depending on the speed of the behavior. For example, we may only reinforce if the correct answer is given within 5 seconds of the question.

Alternatively, we might provide reinforcement dependent on the response recurring only when appropriate. For example, let’s say we have a client who says “hello” repeatedly after seeing the therapist/teacher. The initial “hello” is a preferred behavior – but we don’t want them saying it five times in a row. In this case, we would only reinforce the first utterance. Similarly, we would withhold any reinforcement for an unwanted response.

This can be applied to things like toothbrushing, nose-picking, scripting, covering one’s mouth when coughing or various other preferred/non-preferred actions.

If you have questions about how our ABA therapy department uses differential reinforcement or how you can apply it at home, our Northeast Ohio team is here to help!

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Akron and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, homeschooling, alternative schooling, virtual therapy and education, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

What is Applied Behavior Analysis? Autism Speaks

More Blog Entries:

What is a Parent’s Role in Akron ABA Therapy? Aug. 7, 2020, Akron ABA Therapy Blog