“A little positive reinforcement is a great tool. Any cop would much rather reward someone than hand them a summons.” – Quote by Tom Leach, Founder of Media RED.
Wilhelm Kaiser lives with his parents, William and Victoria in a beautiful apartment in Allegan County, Michigan. He is 10 years and the apple of their eyes. He has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and has been in ABA therapy for the past few years. When Wilhelm completes his morning routine with minimal assistance before heading to school, his parents reward him with his favorite treat – A Twinkie bar. His eyes light up and he is more likely to do his morning routine independently because he knows he gets Twinkie. This is called reinforcement. Reinforcement is one of the core principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
Simply put, reinforcement is rewarding an individual with a preferred activity/item for the desirable behavior and encouraging the same by giving them a favorite eat/toy or let them indulge in a preferred activity etc. This is a basic application of the three-term contingency, or the so-called ABCs of ABA:
Antecedent – the actions that happened before the behavior occurred
Behavior – the actions done by the person
Consequence – the actions that occur after the behavior
ABA can put in place preventative measures for the antecedent by changing the environment to prevent the behavior both in the classroom or at home. With antecedent strategies in place usually results in the occurrence of the desirable to occur which allows the individual to contact reinforcement. For example, the presence of an iPad may result in a maladaptive behavior of dropping to the floor. To prevent the behavior from occurring, a parent may keep the iPad out of sight, so the child doesn’t get distracted while doing their schoolwork. Reinforcing an individual for desirable behavior instantly is best as they can clearly see or understand the contingency between a behavior and access to reinforcement. This helps to develop novel functional skills.
Differential reinforcement is used to parse out when an individual contacts reinforcement. It is a strategy that is typically used to address maladaptive or undesirable behavior, particularly with children. The goal is to foster appropriate and socially significant behaviors by giving or withholding a reinforcer.
There are four types of differential reinforcement:
DRI (Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors) – Reinforcement is only given when behavior is shown that cannot exist simultaneously as the maladaptive behavior. For example, If Wilhelm tends to walk around a classroom; DRI might call for reinforcement to only occur when he is seated.
DRA (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors) – This actively reinforces behaviors that are opposite to maladaptive behavior. A good example is when Wilhelm performs a task quietly, as opposed to loudly or while objecting.
DRO (Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors) – This reinforces essentially any other behavior besides the maladaptive behavior. Using the previous example, Wilhelm might be rewarded if he performs the task while talking or not talking, but not reinforced in the event of a meltdown.
DRL (Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates – This simply seeks to lower the occurrence of behaviors that may be socially acceptable, but only in some situations or with low frequency. Playing, for example, is perfectly appropriate for most children—however; a therapist may use DRL to encourage that behavior only at particular times or not at the cost of other activities.
As you can see, reinforcement is used throughout applied ABA to increase appropriate behaviors. This principle is crucial in therapy and is the most important aspect in changing behaviors of individuals to improve their appropriate behavior & reduce maladaptive behaviors.