What is ABA? (Applied Behavioral Analysis)

July 2021
What is ABA? (Applied Behavioral Analysis)

By: Madison Simms, RBT


Your Child Has a Voice

Working in an early intervention clinic, the number one question that parents rightfully ask is, “When are my kids going to talk.” I always wish that I could give them an estimate of when this is going to happen. I’m not allowed to give guarantees of behavior that will or will not happen – humans are wonderful, weird, and unpredictable. Instead, in ABA, we focus on looking at the behaviors at hand. While kids aren’t always saying things, they are always doing something.

So, ABA deals with the actual observable behavior that can be defined objectively. For example, stomping feet can be defined as “lifting and dropping feet in an alternate fashion.” Or, playing with others could include “tolerates others playing with their item of choice without engaging in problem behavior” We then work on finding patterns within those behaviors to best meet learners where they are and teach them new skills to use in their sessions and throughout their lives. Let’s look into some basic strategies used in ABA….

Easy as ABC: Antecedent, Behavior, & Consequence

One of the first tools I was able to use was the ABC Model of recording behavior. This stands for Antecedent (what happened before), Behavior (the actual behavior of concern), and the Consequence (what happened after the behavior). It helps to have a record of what happened, and try to leave emotion out of the recording! It is easier to have them written down as it happens. If the antecedent i “they were sad,” it will be harder to track behavior over time, even if it is true. The goal is that over time as we record these events, we can see what reinforcement the child gets out of engaging these behaviors.

R means Up, P means Down (Reinforcement & Punishment)

Most people are familiar with the terms of reinforcement and punishment. But, as one of my past supervising behavior analysts often said, “A reinforcer is only a reinforcer if it’s reinforcing.” What a tongue twister! Now, let’s unpack that statement.

A reinforcer is defined as something that’s going to increase the behavior. Every child responds differently to different reinforcers. Many children at the clinic have peculiar interests – some kids like specific parts of videos, hiding things, or just dropping objects. I’ve brought in toys that I thought would be fun, and the learner could care less about about them. Therefore, we can all delve into the specific interests of learners and see what they like and attend to and then use that to our advantage. Now before the learner gains access to their reinforcer they have to clap their hands, try to make sounds, or whatever behavior you want to increase.

Conversely, a punisher is anything that decreases a behavior. Oftentimes people make the mistake of thinking scolding or time outs are punishments.Sometimes attention (even if it’s negative) or time by themselves, are reinforcements, and the child may tend to do more of the undesired behavior if it gets them those things. Even if you think it’s supposed to have a punishing effect. I wanted to cover this to avoid any confusion. There are a few ethical concerns with using punishment such as negative associations with learning, increased escape behaviors, and short lived behavior decreases as compared to reinforced behaviors. Because of these proven negative effects, ABA really focuses on increasing behaviors we want to see with reinforcement.

WTF – What’s the Function?

In order to address different behaviors, we need to be able to see why the learner is engaging in those behaviors. There are different reasons why everyone engages in certain behaviors, including those receiving ABA services.

  1. Attention Seeking
    • The most common and most commonly misunderstood behavior.
    • Not every behavior is “doing it for attention,” there are likely other factors at play
    • Observe if a particular behavior is attention seeking.
      • Pay attention to how the child responds if you withhold your attention.
      • Pay attention to their eye contact, do they initiate or maintain while performing the action?
  2. Access to Tangibles
    • Your typical tantrum thrower at the toy store, when a request is denied.
    • Work with your child to teach them to ask for and/or work for what they want.
  3. Escape
    • This is when a child wants to leave from an undesirable situation or setting.
    • Commonly seen when our therapists place a demand in order to to teach, during their session.
    • This is often also tied to access to tangibles and other reinforces.
  4. Automatic Reinforcement
    • This is the strongest type of reinforcement, making it’s habits the most difficult to break.
    • There is no reason to really engage in these behaviors despite the fact that we just like them.
    • Talk it out with your child if the behavior is inappropriate. See if there is any other way that they can gain access to that automatic reinforcement.

Shape Up: The Gradual Teaching Method

As much as we would love to have kids exhibit clear and complex behaviors all on their own, we often have to use a more gradual teaching method instead called shaping. This is rewarding behaviors that are along the way to the target behavior. Metaphorically speaking, instead of asking a kid to reach a book on a high shelf, we can teach them to use taller and taller step stools to complete the task. A kid may not clap their hands when asked, but they can look at you, move their hands around, touch them together, hold them together, and then finally clap their hands when you ask.

In terms of vocal speech this method is used often as well. A child may not say “Mom,” but does say “mmm.” Then we can expand that to muh, mah, mah-mah, and finally “mom.” Be patient and keep trying, and reinforce closer and closer responses to what you want to see along the way.

Final Thoughts: Don’t Be Discouraged, There Is No Quick Fix

All behavior change takes time and tends to be messy. If you feel like things aren’t working at first, be patient. Try things again and again until they start to get it. If an approach doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board and find a different method which would best meet your child where they are. Unfortunately, there is not really a true, effective “quick fix” for problem behaviors. But, once the behavior change is taught and rewarded your child will learn ways to more positively interact with the world around them.