What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

http://ababehavioral.com globeABA is the application of scientific principles to effect behavior change. It was first discovered in clinical settings and is the result of decades of research. Over the past 30 years there have been several thousand published research studies documenting the effectiveness of ABA.  There is empirical research dealing with various populations including children and adults with mental illness, developmental disabilities and learning disorders.  Studies have dealt with various settings, behaviors and interventionists. ABA is an objective discipline. It focuses on the reliable measurement and objective evaluation of observable behavior. Reliable measurement requires that behaviors are defined objectively. Vague terms such as anger, depression, aggression or tantrums are redefined in observable and quantifiable terms, so their frequency, duration or other measurable properties can be directly recorded.

“Socially significant behaviors” such as academics, reading, social skills, communication, and adaptive living skills may be addressed using principles of ABA.  Adaptive living skills include gross and fine motor skills, eating and food preparation, toileting, dressing, personal self-care, domestic skills, time and punctuality, money and value, home and community orientation, and work skills. ABA methods are used to support persons with autism and other developmental disabilities in a number of ways including increase of appropriate behaviors, skill acquisition, maintenance, generalization and transfer of behavior from one situation, setting or response to another and to restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur.

The typical process includes:

  • selection of interfering behavior or behavioral skill deficit
  • identification of goals and objectives
  • establishment of a method of measuring target behaviors
  • evaluation of the current levels of performance (baseline)
  • design and implementation of the interventions that teach new skills and/or reduce interfering behaviors
  • continuous measurement of target behaviors to determine the effectiveness of the intervention, and ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention, with modifications made as necessary to maintain and/or increase both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the intervention.

Function , Function, Function! Without identifying a “purpose” for the behavior it is likely that responses to the behavior will seriously backfire and in many cases contribute to the continuation and magnification of the behavior of concern.

Example:  John has a history of yelling loudly during school assemblies.  A typical response may be for John to be removed from the assembly and reprimanded with additional negative consequences administered.  Little or no effort would be given to the function behind the behavior.  Could John be seeking attention from his peers?  Could the noise coming from the P.A. system be too loud? Could John simply want to escape the crowd?  Each of these functions would require a different behavioral approach. Without the minimum of a descriptive assessment in which data is collected and a hypothesis of the behavioral function, an incorrect response to the behavior may actually increase the frequency and/or intensity of the behavior.

Reinforcers work! (Really) Everyday, everywhere, everyone receives reinforcement which results in increase of future behavior. Have you ever opened the mail and found an unexpected check?  You spend the next few days racing to the mailbox (One can dream right?) Eventually, running to the mail box slows when all that is found are bills.

Or how about this?  Your kid’s fighting drives you crazy and you yell until they disappear into their rooms. Yup, reinforcement, (for you, not the kids.  In this case,” negative reinforcement.” Yelling is reinforced by the kids quieting down- so you will most likely yell again when things heat up.)

One common mistake that is made by parents, teachers and significant others is the assumption of what will serve as a reinforcer for another person. The thing about reinforcers is that we can not decide whether something will function as a reinforcer for another person- Each individual’s behavior indicates if a stimulus serves as reinforcer. If there is a future increase of the behavior that preceded the reinforcer than yes, it is a true reinforcer.

One aspect of ABA is identifying reinforcers for each particular client. This is not always an easy task. One way to enhance reinforcement is for the ABA therapist to make themselves a reinforcer.  Parents usually are conditioned reinforcers because they are paired with all kinds of good things such as hugs, baked cookies, attention, bed-time stories, walks in the rain….

There is no limit to the possibilities of reinforcers.  Popping bubble wrap, flying a kite, petting a dog, eating pizza (too obvious?) running on a treadmill, rolling down a hill, receiving a kiss, listening to thunder, catching fireflies, receiving verbal praise, high fives, smiles …..You get the picture. Which ones work for your special someone?  That is the million dollar question!

Example:  Susie raises her hand to answer a question and receives a big smile from the teacher.  In the days and weeks that follow, Susie increases the behavior of raising her hand to answer questions. Based on the increase of hand raising, the teacher’s smile serves as a reinforcer to Susie’s hand raising behavior. BUT, let’s say that one day Susie’s classmate Ben musters up the nerve to raise his hand to answer a question and the kind teacher also looks directly at Ben and smiles, in the days that follow Ben does not raise his hand again.  It is clear that the teachers smile did not serve as a reinforcer to Ben.

Put in other words, just because I love M & M’s doesn’t mean everyone else does. Even if they do, will one M & M suffice?  Ten? A whole bag?   Would I exert effort to complete a task for one?

If I gave my son a dollar after each time he put his cup in the dishwasher, how long would it take before he was dirtying dishes just so he could put them in! What if I gave him a dollar after he finished washing the car?  Do you think he would run out and offer to wash the car everyday?  Most likely not, too much effort for too little payback. SO, another point about reinforcers is that they may work for some behaviors and not others. There is constant competition and contingencies in our environments that challenge the efficacy of reinforcement.

Considering a behavior analyst? See the consumer information page at the Behavior Analyst Certification Board for more information http://www.bacb.com/consum_frame.html

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