What is ABA?
What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the number one identified researched-based intervention and approach for individuals with disabilities, especially young children with autism. Unfortunately, however, there are widespread misconceptions regarding what ABA really entails. Many people associate ABA with a narrow set of practices rather than understanding the wealth of applications it offers and the ways in which ABA can be used to improve behavior and lives. The purpose of this Blog is to define ABA in practical terms, helping families to seek the best and most appropriate applications for their children.
What is ABA? Applied behavior analysis was defined as a field in the late 1960s after years of preliminary research (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968). The overriding goal was to extend scientific principles of human behavior beyond highly-controlled or laboratory environments to resolve real life problems. The key features of ABA were, of course, that it was applied, behavioral, and analytic.
Applied means that interventions are geared toward achieving socially important goals, helping people be more successful in natural settings such as homes, schools, and communities. Behavioral means that ABA focuses on what people say or do, rather than interpretations or assumptions about behavior. And analytic means that assessments are used to identify relationships between behavior and aspects of the environment (e.g., screaming occurs most when Johnny is given a difficult task and allows him to delay or avoid that activity) before proceeding to intervention.
In addition to these basic characteristics, behavior analytic interventions are expected to be defined clearly so they can be used consistently and to only include behavioral strategies that are sound in both theory and in practice. ABA involves ongoing data collection to evaluate whether behavior is changing in the desired direction and the goals are being achieved. The expectation is that outcomes ‘generalize’ across people, situations, and settings and continue over time.
How is ABA used?
Over the years, a variety of practices have evolved out of ABA. These practices are based on something called the “three-term contingency” – antecedents-behavior-consequences. In essence this means that behavior occurs in response to events or conditions in the environment (i.e., antecedents) and continues due to its results (i.e., consequences). For example, a child may whine when asked to do a lengthy or difficult chore and that whining may result in delaying its completion.
ABA practices typically involve the following elements:
1. Managing the consequences of behavior by rewarding positive behavior, withholding positive consequences, or – in some cases – using punishment (e.g., scolding) to deter behavior
2. Re-arranging antecedents to promote positive behavior and minimize the likelihood of problem behavior (e.g., clarifying expectations, simplifying tasks, providing choices)
3. Teaching skills that allow individuals to be more successful and less reliant on problem behavior to meet their needs
Popular practices based on the principles of ABA have incorporated some or all of these features. For example, reward systems, behavioral contracts, time-out, and removing privileges are commonly used in the schools. When applied appropriately (e.g., making sure rewards are actually enticing to students), these strategies can promote positive behavior. Early intervention programs and programs for children with autism often emphasize arranging the classroom or home environments (e.g., using pictures, bins for items); these can be considered antecedent interventions. Most notable among the ABA practices is systematic instructional procedures, such as discrete trial or verbal behavior training, that incorporate effective teaching and reinforcement practices to help children with disabilities learn new skills rapidly and efficiently.
Functional behavioral assessment, which was derived from functional analysis, is a staple of ABA. It is a process by which the specific functions, or consequences, influencing a person’s behavior are identified so that interventions can be tailored to those needs. FBA involves observations and interviews to collect data that reflect consistent patterns of behavior. Interventions based on FBA are more effective than those selected arbitrarily. Functional communication training, for example, is a highly effective strategy that uses information from an FBA to teach people other ways to communicate to get exactly what they were trying to achieve through their behavior (e.g., tugging on a person’s sleeve to request attention rather than slamming objects).
Over the past several years, Positive Behavior Support (PBS) has also gained popularity, particularly in schools. The goal of PBS is to combine the principles and practices of ABA – functional behavioral assessment and comprehensive behavioral interventions that blend antecedent and consequence-based strategies – into user-friendly packages that can be readily implemented by family members and direct service providers to support children within natural routines in homes, schools, and communities. PBS practitioners are committed to transferring their knowledge and skills to produce durable, lifestyle change.
What should I expect?
Regardless of the specific practices being used, ABA services should adhere to the basic characteristics described in this article. As a family member, one should expect behavior analysts to have appropriate training and experience to implement ABA appropriately (e.g., see bacb.com for standards) and perform the following functions:
· Engage caretakers in goal setting, assessment, intervention design, plan implementation, and evaluation
· Define goals and behaviors of concern for children in observable terms
· Conduct a thorough assessment in order to identify antecedents and consequences affecting the child’s behavior
· Design individualized behavioral interventions based on the principles of applied behavior analysis that include strategies to…
1. Prevent problems/prompt positive behavior
2. Teach your child appropriate replacement skills
3. Manage consequences (e.g., reactions) to behavior
· Provide specific written recommendations and training, allowing caretakers to apply strategies under the circumstances in which they are needed
· Evaluate the child’s progress on a regular basis using objective measures and criteria
What is right for my child?
Because ABA is applied in so many different ways, using so many different labels, it can be extremely confusing for families and service providers. Often, people feel pressured to choose between different approaches, even when more than one approach may make sense for their children. Many practitioners exploit this conflict in order to ‘sell’ their particular approach.
To be informed, consumers, parents, teachers, and other service providers must understand ABA as a whole. Whereas all of the approaches described here have been derived from ABA, none are ABA in its entirety. The science of human behavior is constantly evolving, creating more effective strategies for children and families.
Applied Behavior Analysis for the Classroom
Applied Behavior Analysis for the Classroom
Many teachers already know of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as the science of applying principles of behavior change to affect socially significant behaviors. ABA-based strategies are used to either increase skills or prevent and decrease maladaptive responses. Its principles are in use across many different fields, including special education. Special education teachers may be familiar with ABA from being part of a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) for challenging behaviors, but there is more to the science of ABA that can help a student in the classroom; for instance, it can be used as a teaching tool, a preventative tool or to maintain and generalize skills already learned. The following are some ways in which ABA principles can be applied to a typical classroom or special education classroom setting.
Pairing is the process of associating fun, good and meaningful experiences with a student’s teachers and support staff. In the beginning of establishing the teacher-student relationship, it can be beneficial to schedule time in the day to interact with the student using their preferred items or activities and/or talk to the student about their favorite things (e.g., TV shows, music), showing an interest in what they’re doing or saying. During this period of time, these preferred activities are offered non-contingently and little to no demands are placed upon the student. Once the educator has established himself or herself as “the giver of the goods,” then instructions and work expectations can be introduced. Students will be less resistant to the work because they’ve experienced that the teacher is also a fun person to be with, not just the person who assigns them work.
Plan for Prompts
You may have heard that the goal of special education teachers and paraprofessionals is to work ourselves out of a job–in other words, being there to help and prompt, but doing it in a way such that the student won’t need our help in the future. Prompts are cues that assist the learner in responding correctly or most appropriately for the situation so that they may experience success. Prompts can be verbal (e.g., giving instructions for each step), visual (e.g., photographs, signs, labels), gestural (e.g., pointing to the correct response, directing a student’s attention to the material), environmental (e.g., placing materials closer to where the student will need them) or physical (e.g., tap on the elbow, hand-over-hand guidance). They are supposed to be temporary, but can easily become part of the response chain; this is what is known as prompt dependency. In order to prevent this from occurring, it is beneficial to list and discuss with all the support staff the type of prompt(s) to be used when teaching a particular skill, how long to wait before prompting and the criteria for fading prompts down a prompting hierarchy (for example, after two consecutive correct responses using a verbal prompt, fade to a gestural prompt) or to something more likely to be found in the student’s home, school or community environment (e.g., signs, material placement). Staff will need to monitor the performance of their students in order to know when to fade their prompts. (See “Gather and Monitor Data,” below.)
Throughout the school day, teaching staff will observe a variety of behaviors and student responses. Some of them will be more desirable than others. Differential reinforcement is a plan that entails reinforcing one set of behaviors and withholding reinforcement for another (usually, the less desirable ones); thus, one set of behaviors increases while the other decreases. It is also the process behind shaping new skills, as an increased expectation is reinforced while performance that does not meet the new criterion is not. In order to improve the effectiveness of differential reinforcement it is essential to have: a) team involvement, in which everyone who comes into contact with the student knows about and is invested in the target behaviors to reinforce, as well as those not to reinforce; b) consistent responses by all when either set of behaviors is demonstrated; and c) a shift in the balance of reinforcement so that positive or newly-taught behaviors are reinforced more often than negative behaviors. As an example, you may have a student who swears to get a reaction and attention from staff. Use of differential reinforcement would mean that other forms of getting attention (raising a hand, telling a joke, sharing a story, showing work) should be reinforced more often than swearing. This involves a concerted effort by all staff to “catch” the student using more desirable attention-getting behaviors so that the balance shifts from swearing to these newly-shaped behaviors.
Gather and Monitor Data
One of the basic tenets of ABA is the need to demonstrate effectiveness by measuring responses and concluding whether or not what is being done is working. This is achieved through gathering data on the behaviors and performance of students before, during and after a program is implemented. A variety of dimensions of behavior can be measured depending on the goal of the program; for instance, one can measure frequency, duration, response time, independent vs. prompted skills or correct vs. incorrect answers. The concern, of course, is what to measure, how to measure it, when and for how long, Again, a team approach to discussing and assigning a simple yet efficient means of gathering data throughout the school day (but not necessarily all day) will help to ensure that the data will be of use to you. Data can then be graphed and analyzed for patterns and trends; this is an excellent source of feedback for staff, students and parents about what is working and not working. Regular and frequent monitoring of this data will ensure that effective strategies remain in place and that ineffective practices are discontinued. It will also help to determine if and when criteria have been met, which results in changes to a program (e.g., when to fade prompts or increase expectations).
The above is just a small sample of how ABA can benefit a student’s programming and skill acquisition. Your school district may have a behavior resource team or Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on staff to assist in the development of behavior plans and to share other ABA resources for the classroom.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
How is ASD treated?
The Goal of ABA's
A note to parents
The road to an autism diagnosis can be difficult and time-consuming. In fact, it is often 2 to 3 years after the first symptoms of autism are recognized before an official diagnosis is made. This is due in large part to concerns about labeling or incorrectly diagnosing the child. However, an autism diagnosis can also be delayed if the doctor doesn’t take a parent’s concerns seriously or if the family isn’t referred to health care professionals who specialize in developmental disorders.
If you’re worried that your child has autism, it’s important to seek out a medical diagnosis. But don’t wait for that diagnosis to get your child into treatment. Early intervention during the preschool years will improve your child’s chances for overcoming his or her developmental delays. So look into treatment options and try not to worry if you’re still waiting on a definitive diagnosis. Putting a potential label on your child’s problem is far outweighed by the need to treat the symptoms.
Additional resources for you:
ABC’s of Starting ABA Autism Therapy
ABC’s of Starting ABA Autism Therapy
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- U.S. Surgeon General
- Many major insurance companies and state health agencies
If you talk with parents who have walked the road before, you will quickly understand just how much ABA-based therapy has changed the lives of their children and families for the better. Including:
- Help children learn how to find their voices
- Increase cognitive skills and achieve academic success
- Connect with society
- Give parents the approach and tools they needed to communicate and with their children
Studies show that:
- Children with Autism who receive timely and intensive ABA-based therapy demonstrate success rates of 80-90 percent.
- When treated in time, nearly 50 percent of children will begin to demonstrate age appropriate intellectual ability. Of those left untreated, only two percent will realize significant improvement.
“Children with disabilities who receive early intervention services show significant developmental progress a year later, and families report increased confidence in their ability to deal with their child.” (Dept of Education, 2003)
What Is Verbal Behavior Therapy?
Who Responds to Verbal Behavior Therapy?
What is the History and Scientific Support of Verbal Behavior Therapy?
Montessori Curriculum and Philosophy
The basic principle of the Montessori philosophy of education is that each child carries within himself the potential of the adult he will become. In the Montessori environment, each child is allowed to move and talk at will, and to work alone or in groups, with the understanding that the feelings and rights of others must always be respected. The overall aim, then, is to develop within the child a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge that will remain with him long after the regular school day or, indeed, the school years are over.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment” Maria Montessori