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.)

Differential Reinforcement

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)
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that is characterized by impaired development in communication, social interaction, and behavior. Statistics about autism include that it afflicts one out of every 88 children, a 78% increase in the past 10 years. It affects the lives of many children and their families. It also tends to affect about five boys to every one girl. Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely-related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Every individual on the autism spectrum has problems to some degree with social skills, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior. But the level of disability and the combination of symptoms vary tremendously from person to person. In fact, two children with the same diagnosis may look very different when it comes to their behaviors and abilities.
How is ASD treated?
While there’s no proven cure yet for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), treating ASD early, using school-based programs, and getting proper medical care can greatly reduce ASD symptoms and increase your child’s ability to grow and learn new skills. Early intervention: Research has shown that intensive behavioral therapy during the toddler or preschool years can significantly improve cognitive and language skills in young children with ASD. There is no single best treatment for all children with ASD, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recently noted common features of effective early intervention programs. These include: · Starting as soon as a child has been diagnosed with ASD. · Providing focused and challenging learning activities at the proper developmental level for the child for at least 25 hours per week and 12 months per year. · Having small classes to allow each child to have one-on-one time with the therapist or teacher and small group learning activities. · Having special training for parents and family. · Encouraging activities that include typically developing children, as long as such activities help meet a specific learning goal. · Measuring and recording each child’s progress and adjusting the intervention program as needed. · Providing a high degree of structure, routine, and visual cues, such as posted activity schedules and clearly defined boundaries, to reduce distractions. · Guiding the child in adapting learned skills to new situations and settings and maintaining learned skills. · Using a curriculum that focuses on language and communication, social skills, such as joint attention (looking at other people to draw attention to something interesting and share in experiencing it), self-help and daily living skills, such as dressing and grooming. · Research-based methods to reduce challenging behaviors, such as aggression and tantrums. · Cognitive skills, such as pretend play or seeing someone else’s point of view. · Typical school-readiness skills, such as letter recognition and counting.
The Goal of ABA's
Applied behavior analysis (ABA): The goals of ABA are to shape and reinforce new behaviors, such as learning to speak and play, and reduce undesirable ones. ABA, which can involve intensive, one-on-one child-teacher interaction for up to 40 hours a week, has inspired the development of other, similar interventions that aim to help those with ASD reach their full potential. ABA-based interventions include: Verbal Behavior: focusing on teaching language using a sequenced curriculum that guides children from simple verbal behaviors (echoing) to more functional communication skills through techniques such as errorless teaching and prompting. Pivotal Response Training: This aims at identifying pivotal skills, such as initiation and self-management, which affect a broad range of behavioral responses. This intervention incorporates parent and family education aimed at providing skills that enable the child to function in inclusive settings.
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:

Autism Speaks

ABC’s of Starting ABA Autism Therapy

ABC’s of Starting ABA Autism Therapy
If you are raising a child with Autism, it’s time to learn about the benefits of ABA and to separate the proof of its effectiveness from that of other so called cures… and you need to do it quickly. Don’t waste time with less than reputable websites and doctors offering miracle cures or with unproven therapies and don’t waste time with less than reputable websites and doctors offering miracle cures or with unproven therapies and wild claims. There are no hormonal, vitamin, stem cell, or herbal treatments that will cure a child of Autism. Please do not waste time with discounted ABA services delivered by indifferent, incompetent, and inexperienced professionals. . . . Because you have little precious time to waste. ABA-based therapy has been deemed effective for the positive treatment of ASD by almost every reputable agency and organization familiar with Autism, including:


  •    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?
Verbal Behavior Therapy teaches communication using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis and the theories of behaviorist B.F. Skinner. By design, Verbal Behavior Therapy motivates a child, adolescent or adult to learn language by connecting words with their purposes. The student learns that words can help obtain desired objects or other results. Therapy avoids focusing on words as mere labels (cat, car, etc.) Rather, the student learns how to use language to make requests and communicate ideas. To put it another way, this intervention focuses on understanding why we use words. In his book Verbal Behavior, Skinner classified language into types, or “operants.” Each has a different function. Verbal Behavior Therapy focuses on four word types. They are: Mand. A request. Example: “Cookie,” to ask for a cookie. Tact. A comment used to share an experience or draw attention. Example: “airplane” to point out an airplane. Intraverbal. A word used to answer a question or otherwise respond. Example: Where do you go to school? “Castle Park Elementary.” Echoic. A repeated, or echoed, word. Example: “Cookie?” “Cookie!” (important as the student needs to imitate to learn) Verbal Behavior Therapy begins by teaching mands, or requests, as the most basic type of language. For example, the individual with autism learns that saying “cookie” can produce a cookie. Immediately after the student makes such a request, the therapist reinforces the lesson by repeating the word and presenting the requested item. The therapist then uses the word again in the same or similar context. Importantly, students don’t have to say the actual word to receive the desired item. In the beginning, they simply need to signal requests by any means. Pointing at the item represents a good start. This helps the student understand that communicating produces positive results. The therapist builds on this understanding to help the student shape the communication toward saying or signing the actual word. Importantly, Verbal Behavior Therapy uses “errorless learning.” The therapist provides immediate and frequent prompts to help improve the student’s communication. These prompts become less intrusive as quickly as possible, until the student no longer needs prompting. Take, for example, the student who wants a cookie. The therapist may hold the cookie in front of the student’s face and say “cookie,” to prompt a response from the child. Next, the therapist would hold up the cookie and make a “c” sound, to prompt the response. After that, the therapist might simply hold a cookie in the child’s line of sight and wait for the request. The ultimate goal, in this example, is for the student to say “cookie” when he or she wants a cookie – without any prompting. In a typical Verbal Behavior Therapy session, the teacher asks a series of questions that combine easy and hard requests. This increases the frequency of success and reduces frustration. Ideally, the teacher varies the situations and instructions in ways that catch and sustain the student’s interest. Most programs involve a minimum of one to three hours of therapy per week. More-intensive programs can involve many more hours. In addition, instructors train parents and other caregivers to use verbal-behavior principles throughout the student’s daily life.
Who Responds to Verbal Behavior Therapy?
Reports suggest that Verbal Behavior Therapy can help both young children beginning to learn language and older students with delayed or disordered language. It likewise helps many children and adults who sign or use visual supports or other forms of assisted communication.
What is the History and Scientific Support of Verbal Behavior Therapy?
Skinner published Verbal Behavior in 1957 to describe his functional analysis of language. In the 1970s, behavior analysts Vincent Carbone, Mark Sundberg and James Partington began adapting Skinner’s approach to create Verbal Behavior Therapy. Since 1982, the Association for Behavior Analysis International has published the annual, peer-reviewed journal The Analysis of Verbal Behavior. Many small studies have supported the effectiveness of Verbal Behavior Therapy with children. (Dr. Sundberg summarized these in 2001, here.) However, a 2006 review of the scientific literature concluded that more research is needed to confirm effectiveness and identify who is most likely to benefit from the approach.
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