September 28, 2020
As an evidence-based field derived from decades of research, applied behavior analysis (ABA) involves encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging maladaptive ones. ABA principles assist with teaching and reinforcing life skills and adaptive learning behaviors, including clear, effective communication. For these reasons, ABA therapy is often recommended for individuals with autism, but behavior analytic techniques prove to be beneficial across a wide range of fields and occupations.
The functional behavior assessment (FBA) helps with establishing a treatment plan. During an FBA, a BCBA observes a patient and their behavior in their environment and attempts to determine why and which factors cause an individual to act or react the way they do. The BCBA’s data then forms the treatment plan, which delineates steps and goals for making behavioral modifications. At the core of the plan is a concept known as the “ABCs”:
- The “antecedent” is the factor—a situation, request, or directive—causing the patient to react or engage in certain habits.
- “Behavior” applies to the patient’s reaction to the antecedent. Patients may react or not have any response.
- “Consequence” is what happens in the environment immediately after a behavior and will either increase or decrease the probability of the preceding behavior occurring again.
However, while the ABCs are integral to ABA therapy in both clinical and educational settings, the principles benefit other career paths and fields.
Organizational Behavior Management (OBM)
ABA principles have significantly influenced the field of organizational behavior management (OBM). In the workforce, companies may have dedicated OBM professionals, or OBM concepts may be integrated into human resources operations. In either context, anyone practicing and responsible for organizational behavioral management needs to have a foundational understanding of ABA.
OBM itself isn’t simply ABA in a corporate setting. Rather, it brings together the principles of industrial psychology, programmed instruction, and scientific management theory and uses them to evaluate employees, encourage teamwork, and improve organizational efficiency. As a result, while OBM is employed in a traditional office setting, it’s equally applicable to healthcare, sports management, and manufacturing fields.
In all settings, OBM professionals operate much like ABA therapists implementing the ABCs while using other management techniques. In the workplace, this looks like:
- observing behavior dynamics in group settings;
- identifying organizational and efficiency issues;
- developing a plan to address and modify issues related to organizational processes and performance, including getting employees to arrive on time and stay on task, encouraging workplace safety, and improving employee retention.
Forensic Behavior Analysis
Forensic behavior analysts have utilized ABA principles for decades to identify and manage criminal behavior both in investigations and rehabilitation. In returning to the ABCs, the antecedent in law enforcement investigations correlates with sources or triggers that encourage or may be associated with criminal behaviors. Because ABA views behaviors not as isolated but instead as products of their environments, the principles assist with identifying individuals who are more likely to commit crimes and relapse after exiting prison and help with reinforcing adaptive behaviors in rehabilitation settings.
Aside from developing criminal profiles, forensic behavior analysts use ABA principles to identify patterns in serial thefts, abductions, and assaults through evidence to find a connection between and motivation for committing a string of crimes. This data, in turn, helps law enforcement with narrowing down a suspect.
In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) created its Behavioral Science Unit in 1972 specifically for this purpose.
Criminal Justice and Corrections
As an offshoot of ABA in forensic behavior analysis, the ABCs echo differential association—a key theory of criminology that acknowledges the influence of outside forces, such as mental health and drug use, on criminal behavior. In a corrections setting, ABA and criminology theories work hand in hand to help former offenders unlearn maladaptive behaviors, often through a mix of encouragement and reinforcement. The goal in this application is to prevent released prisoners from being arrested over the next five years and help them find their place in society.
With this factor in mind, the criminal justice system and rehabilitation industry employ ABA principles on multiple levels, including:
- the “token” system of rewards in prisons;
- drug and alcohol treatment;
- rehabilitation programs to identify triggers of criminal behavior;
- reducing juvenile offender recidivism rates; and
- writing public policies that effectively reduce crime.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Care
Patients living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia see a gradual decrease in cognitive functioning, which not only affects their memory but changes how they go about their day-to-day lives. Individuals not only forget words or tasks they used to know but also experience a decline in logic and reasoning skills, have trouble communicating, may have a change of personality, and develop depression and anxiety. As a manifestation of these factors, patients living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia may engage in inappropriate or harmful behaviors in public.
ABA techniques assist patients and their caregivers during this difficult time. Yet, while memory issues often block consequences from having long-term effects, understanding antecedents allow caregivers to adjust the patient’s environment to reduce depression, anxiety, agitation, and verbal outbursts. At the same time, because certain objects can trigger particular memories in dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, using these items in treatment helps with emphasizing and shaping adaptive behaviors through association.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment
Drug and alcohol abuse often correlates with mental health issues and risk-taking behaviors but also affects a community and, through learned habits, passes from one generation to the next. To halt this process, substance abuse treatment programs blend ABA with cognitive therapy to address the source of dependency, including environmental factors, stress, and discipline, and discourage behaviors that cause individuals to return to drugs and alcohol.
Based on anti-smoking and obesity treatment programs, substance abuse therapy centers around making behavior modifications and utilizes ABA methods through:
- contingency management (CM), which rewards individuals for appropriate behaviors and negatively reinforces destructive or damaging actions;
- voucher-based reinforcement therapy (VBRT), in which individuals participating in substance abuse treatment receive vouchers for negative urine samples; and
- guidance for continuing therapy at home, where relapse is more likely to occur.
More and more social work careers require candidates to obtain Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) Certification. However, outside of specific job requirements, an understanding of applied behavior analysis proves to be vital for:
- examining the relationship between major lifestyle changes, such as job loss, illness, or mental health, and maladaptive behaviors;
- determining the resources needed for clients to receive individualized care and overcome their specific circumstances; and
- connecting clients with appropriate healthcare and government services.
Wellness and Fitness Coach
Instilling lifestyle habits and introducing routines aren’t all a fitness or wellness coach does. Rather, it’s their job to develop reinforcement behaviors so that the client sticks with these routines and gradually drops unhealthy, unproductive habits. The goal, here, is to have a client strive toward peak fitness or wellness once they return home and have them take charge of their own progress.
Because all clients have unique situations, ABA methodology assists a coach with determining the factors preventing a client from fully reaching their goals. The principles are then essential for reinforcing positive behaviors and discouraging older, possibly harmful ones to improve a client’s work-life balance, diet, or physical fitness.
Individuals with autism or another behavior disorder often undergo a combination of ABA and occupational therapy to modify certain behaviors, gain independent living skills, and address mobility issues. Because these two areas intertwine, it’s crucial for occupational therapists to have an understanding of applied behavioral analysis, particularly emphasizing functional behaviors, examining patients in their environment, and understanding the external factors that influence a patient’s actions and habits.
Working in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and nonprofit organizations, speech-language pathologists assess a client’s speaking skills to determine the source of difficulty and recommend a treatment plan to introduce and reinforce language and communication techniques. In one-on-one or group sessions, speech-language pathologists help a diverse range of clients, including those on the autism spectrum and individuals living with an injury that affects their speech.
Therapy and reinforcement are rooted in ABA principles, be it to help a client strengthen their jaw muscles or look for and respond to specific social cues. As well, to work toward certain goals, speech pathologists and ABA therapists often collaborate in various capacities, so understanding the field’s basic methods is essential for the client’s long-term progress.
Enhance Your Career with a Stronger Understanding of Applied Behavior Analysis
Marian University’s online Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program allows professionals across several fields and industries to become familiar with the ABCs and other foundational concepts. To learn more about course content, contact Kurt Nelson, Ph.D., by email or by phone at (317) 955-6421, or request additional information today.