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What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

June 29, 2020

Teacher working with grade school students

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an evidence-based field rooted in research. ABA therapy focuses on teaching and improving various life skills and adaptive learning behaviors, including social and communication skills, academic abilities, hygiene and grooming, and essential behaviors for the workforce. ABA is a therapy often implemented with individuals with Autism, but has also been implemented with individuals with other disabilities: e.g. Down Syndrome, Intellectual Disability, Emotional Disability, and even with individuals who do not have a disability. Behavior Analytic techniques can be implemented in a variety of settings with the goal of improving the quality of life for the individual.

The History of Applied Behavior Analysis

ABA derives from behavior analysis and behaviorism, two scientific fields that focus on improving the human condition through behavioral adjustments and view actions as not isolable incidents but as responses to their environments.

In its most modern form, behavior analysis dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century and is a confluence of evolutionary biology, general physiology, and psychology. Catalyzing the field’s creation, John Watson noted in 1913 that an individual’s behavior relates to the events and happenings in their environment—a novel observation that went against psychology’s more self- and individualistic-based contexts.

By the 1920s, Burrhus Frederic Skinner advanced Watson’s rather rudimentary theory, asserting that while a behavior is integral to understanding who an individual is, their behaviors also shape their environment while mimicking and pulling from their surroundings. He fleshed out these observations in 1930's “On the Conditions of Elicitation of Certain Eating Reflexes,” 1938’s The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis, and 1945’s “The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms.” Using established psychological principles, these definitive documents describe the functional relationship between behavioral responses and stimuli and how an individual’s consciousness, will, and feelings are all indicative of their behavior, instead of being isolated, uninfluenced aspects detached from their surroundings and circumstances.

How Therapists Implement Applied Behavior Analysis

Although other behavior scientists have built upon Skinner’s foundation, his works form the backbone of modern applied behavior analysis and have directly influenced the techniques BCBA therapists employ to examine and change behavior through reinforcing positive actions and discouraging negative ones.

The purpose behind the behavior analytic techniques behavior analysts implement is to improve the quality of the life of the individuals ion their caseload. This is done through an individualized approach with the treatment and behavior created for that specific individual. Behavior analysts work with individuals to ensure the new skills and behaviors are exhibited in a variety of settings and with multiple people they encounter.

To create these plans, an ABA therapist conducts a functional behavior assessment (FBA), which involves observing a patient and measuring their behavior within their respective environment and using this data to determine why an individual behaves a certain way and to enact steps toward making meaningful modifications. Through this framework, applied behavior analysis defines three principles known as the “ABCs”:

  • Antecedent: This refers to the situation, request, or directive that leads the patient to act a certain way.
  • Behavior: The patient’s reaction to the antecedent, including if they respond accordingly, don’t respond at all, or do so in a noncompliant manner.
  • Consequence: This term refers to how the therapist and others—including caretakers and teachers—respond to the patient’s behavior. The “consequence” helps with supporting positive actions and deterring maladaptive ones.

The goal of ABA therapy and techniques is to improve a patient’s quality of life, including in personal and professional settings. To reach this point, the BCBA professional will design and oversee the program, basing their approach on a combination of seven methodologies known as “GET A CAB”:

  • Generalization: The patient’s behavior and acquired skills travel from their original to outside environments.
  • Effective interventions: The ABA professional monitors the treatment plan to assess its impact on the patient’s behavior.
  • Technical: Scientifically backed approaches and their implementation are detailed in the plan.
  • Applied socially significant behaviors: The ABA professional determines the areas the patient needs to work on.
  • Conceptually systematic intervention: Expanding on the points above, this approach ensures all strategies derive from methods detailed in ABA literature.
  • Analytic: Data supports every decision described and implemented.
  • Behavior observable and measurable: As the treatment begins and progresses, all of the therapist’s recommendations involve the patient’s observed and measured behaviors.

During the FBA and throughout treatment, the BCBA professional may bring in parents, caregivers, and teachers, speaking with them about the patient’s strengths, abilities, and issues where they could use work. In the past, these assessments took place in an office setting; however, as ABA therapy evolves, sessions may occur in the home or a school setting, where the therapist observes the patient’s day-to-day behavior. For reaching goals, these adults may be involved in the patient’s treatment plan and utilize the therapist’s methods for reinforcing and discouraging certain behaviors.

For introducing, teaching, and reinforcing skills, applied behavior analysis employs multiple types of strategies:

  • Task analysis is the process of breaking down an action into individual actions or parts that are learned separately first and then chained.
  • Chaining overlaps with task analysis in that it connects and associates certain learned behaviors.
  • Prompting involves verbal, visual, physical, or demonstrative cues to encourage a learned response or behavior.
  • Fading lessens the dependence on prompts, helping the patient incorporate the new skill throughout their daily activities and in various environments.
  • Shaping is the gradual change of the patient’s behavior, reinforced through positive reactions and support.
  • Differential reinforcement involves reacting in a way to influence and change a patient’s behavior and involves less repetition than other applied behavior analysis techniques.
  • Generalization transfers a skill learned in a specific, controlled environment into a common everyday setting, showing the patient the skill’s applicability in a range of situations and locations.
  • Video modeling involves taping the patient’s behavior, allowing them to observe and learn certain responses individually or as a chain.

The behavior analyst monitors the implementation of interventions for each individual closely. This is done through data collection and data analysis, resulting in data-driven decisions. The needs and goals of the individual determine the recommended hours for ABA therapy. The goal for the individual to acquire the targeted goals and be discharged from behavior analytic services.

Although plans vary, common ABA treatment milestones include:

  • having the patient show more interest in and interact with other people;
  • improving communication methods, including asking questions in a clear manner;
  • experiencing stronger focus at school and better academic performance;
  • having fewer outbursts during the day;
  • stopping or reducing self-harming;
  • learning to take care of one’s self, including cooking and doing chores around the home; and
  • gaining key vocational skills for employability.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis Used For?

ABA techniques support individuals in their quest to learn new skills to improve their quality of life.

In Treating People with Autism

Parents with a child with autism—or even adults diagnosed with the condition—may be steered toward ABA therapy to work on learning new life skills in a controlled setting, improving social interactions, and limiting the number and frequency of maladaptive behaviors. Amongst all possible treatments for patients with autism, the US Surgeon General, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Institute of Mental Health consider ABA therapy the most effective to date.

However, applied behavior therapy for autism has evolved over several decades. Early versions were referred to as Discrete Trial Training (DTT), a method developed by Dr. O. Ivaar Lovaas in the 1960s. Compared to the flexibility and customization available today, DTT used a more rigid structure that started by breaking social behaviors and life skills down into small, distinct parts that children would repeat through activity. If the child executed the behavior correctly, the therapist would positively reinforce their action. Since then, ABA therapy for autism has woven in more incidental teaching, in which children learn social behaviors and other life skills in a more natural, familiar setting.

Today, ABA therapy creates a setting for children with autism to learn specific social, behavior, and lifestyle skills that they may have difficulty picking up in school or other social settings.

For Other Conditions

The success of applied behavior analysis in treating autism has led to its adoption for treating or managing multiple physical and mental conditions, as well as to reinforce positive behaviors in education and workplace settings. Today, ABA principles influence or are integral to:

  • substance abuse and addiction treatment;
  • corrections;
  • managing dementia and age-related memory loss;
  • recovering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI);
  • occupational safety;
  • eating disorder recovery;
  • parent training courses;
  • organizational behavior management;
  • treatment for panic order, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and various phobias;
  • managing aggression and anger issues; and
  • developing and implementing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for special education students.

Learn Key Applied Behavior Analysis Skills at Marian University

Whether for enhancing your career or pursuing BCBA or BCaBA certification, Marian University’s Verified Course Sequence (VCS)–approved Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) training program introduces many of the key concepts described above, helping you influence others and improve their quality of life across a range of fields. To learn more, contact Lisa Drumb, Ph.D., BCBA by email or by phone at (317) 955-6223, or request additional information today.

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