Differential Reinforcement

By Sarah Richardson and Claire Murphy, 9/2022

What is Differential Reinforcement?                                                                                     

Color Wheel is a school-based, class-wide, Tier 1 behavior intervention that can be used with children in grades K-12. The Color Wheel is ideal for classrooms presenting with problem behaviors that are negatively impacting classroom management. Additionally, it is ideal for classrooms that struggle with transitions to the next activity. It was designed for classroom use, but could be adapted for use in other settings. In the intervention the color wheel is split into three different color sections, each of which has a different set of behavioral expectations for students to follow. When given a color cue, students will know to switch from one set of rules to another. It is recommended that the Color Wheel be divided into green, yellow, and red sections. The green represents expectations in free-time/low-structure activities and example rules for this section could be talk in a quiet voice, keep hands/feet to yourself, and comply with directions. The yellow represents large or small group work instruction/independent work, and the expectations could be raising your hand to speak/get teacher permission, look at the speaker or your work, and comply with directions. The red represents transition between activities where the expectations could be to return to your seat, clear your desk, look at the teacher, and remain quiet for the next instruction. 

Components of Differential Reinforcement

  • Identify the target behavior(s) thoroughly. These are the behaviors that are interfering with the child’s learning and/or the learning of others. It is helpful to provide a description of what the behavior(s) look like, the frequency of occurrence, their intensity, their location, and/or their duration.  

  • Identify the desired behavior(s) that will be praised/rewarded and/or the replacement behavior(s) that will be given positive feedback throughout the intervention. Provide a thorough description of what these behaviors look like. 

  • Determine the function of the problem behavior(s), or what their purpose is. For example, this could be to escape an undesired task, to gain attention from peers/adults, and/or to obtain a tangible reward. 

  • Collect data prior to the intervention as a baseline so progress can be measured and data from before and after implementation can be compared. 

  • Identify replacement behavior(s) that serve the same function as the target behavior. For example, if the function of yelling out is to gain teacher attention, replace it with raising your hand to achieve the same outcome. 

  • Students must be capable of performing the replacement behavior if this aspect is included in your intervention. 

  • Decide on a progress monitoring method prior to the intervention. This could include a frequency count of the number of times the replacement behavior was observed, or a frequency count of positive behaviors observed. 

  • Set goals for the student that are attainable yet challenging. Set recording periods to be consistent, and make sure the student is aware of when these periods start/end.

  • Find a reward that is motivating to the student and available to be given immediately after a goal is met.  

  • Incorporate frequent positive praise throughout the intervention for positive behavior(s) and/or replacement behaviors being executed by the child. 

  • Cost: This intervention can be done with no cost to you! However, if a reward with monetary value is included, this cost should be accounted for.  

Evidence of Differential Reinforcement's Effectiveness

In a study done by LeGray et al. (2010), researchers examined the effect of two types of Differential Reinforcement. The first was Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO), which involves giving a reward when the undesired behavior is not observed for a specific amount of time. The second was Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA), which involves giving a reward only when the designated replacement behavior is exhibited by the student. The three students in the study were aged Pre-K-K and had previously completed Functional Behavioral Assessments for disruptive classroom behavior. The results found that both intervention modalities significantly reduced the occurrence of problem behavior across the participants, but that the DRA procedure produced a greater effect. In an additional study done by LeGray et al. (2013), researchers compared the effect of Differential Reinforcement both with and without pre-teaching the replacement behaviors to be employed by students in Pre-K and kindergarten. The results indicate that Differential Reinforcement resulted in a greater effect in both lowering the occurrence of problem behavior and increasing levels of the replacement behavior occurrence than just Differential Enforcement alone. Finally, a study conducted by Flynn et al. (2016) focused on a population of middle school students identified with behavioral problems and presenting with disabilities. The study examined the effect of the implementation of DRA. The results found that all six participants displayed a reduction in problem behaviors and an increase in replacement behaviors. 


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis, Second Ed. Prentice Hall: Columbus, OH. 


Flynn, S. D., & Lo, Y. Y. (2016). Teacher implementation of trial-based functional analysis and differential reinforcement of alternative behavior for students with challenging behavior. Journal of Behavioral Education, 25(1), 1-31.


LeGray, M. W., Dufrene, B. A., Mercer, S., Olmi, D. J., & Sterling, H. (2013). Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior in center-based classrooms: Evaluation of pre-teaching the alternative behavior. Journal of Behavioral Education, 22(2), 85-102.


LeGray, M. W., Dufrene, B. A., Sterling-Turner, H., Joe Olmi, D., & Bellone, K. (2010). A comparison of function-based differential reinforcement interventions for children engaging in disruptive classroom behavior. Journal of Behavioral Education, 19(3), 185-204.


Tslat. (n.d.). Differential reinforcement of alternative, incompatible, or other behavior (DR). TSLAT. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.txautism.net/interventions/differential-reinforcement#:~:text=Differential%20reinforcement%20of%20alternative%2C%20incompatible%2C%20or%20other%20behavior%20(DRA,non%2Ddemonstration%20of%20such%20behavior.


Vollmer, T.R., Iwata, B.A., Zarcone, J.R., Smith, R.G., & Mazaleki, J.L. (1993). The role of attention in the treatment of attention-maintained self-injurious behavior: Noncontigent reinforcement and differential reinforcement of other behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 9-21.