Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behavior Analysis, also known as ABA, is the science of changing the behavior of living things by determining the function of their behavior, and developing a behavior change strategy or intervention that teaches a better way to get what they want or need, based on that function.

If the function of an child’s screaming behavior is to get people to leave him alone, one might teach the child a method to communicate “I do not feel like being with others right now”. The behavior changer would then reinforce that communication by moving away when it is used. If people continue to stand nearby and speak to the child when he is screaming, but they go away when he communicates he would like to be alone, it becomes more efficient to use the appropriate communication.

ABA can be used to change the behavior of your children, your parents, your pets, and even your spouse. All people with challenging behavior can benefit from ABA. The basic concepts are not that difficult to learn, however, the ability to use them correctly, in the correct context, takes effort.


ABA, Autism, Down Syndrome, and other diagnoses

Children with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other developmental disabilities can greatly increase their physical, emotional and academic success with ABA. In infancy and childhood, arranging the environment to challenge the child to move towards toys and other desired items, increasing the use of fine motor skills, and shaping effective communication, both verbal and gestural, reaps huge rewards in the form of increased independence and functioning for their lifetime.

Children with mental health diagnoses; such as Oppositional Defiant, Conduct, and Disruptive Disorders, in most cases, do not have an illness or disease. Their inappropriate behavior is learned, and can be changed, with ABA. Children with Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Anxiety Disorders can be effectively treated by teaching them strategies such as relaxation techniques, behavior contracting, and how to break large jobs and projects into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Much is said about the effectiveness of ABA with children with autism, that it can “cure” autism. The truth is, ABA is the only intervention that has been empirically shown to significantly affect the devastating effects of autism. Sometimes, if the child does not also have a cognitive deficiency, and with skilled intervention during early childhood, the diagnosis is withdrawn due successful treatment.


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
is a process by which the behavior changer:

1. Identifies the behavior to be changed (or learned)

2. Specifically (or operationally) defines it

3. Gathers data on when and where it occurs and does not occur, or how the person is getting their needs met without the skill

4. Determines the function of the behavior (Attention, Escape, Access to Reinforcement, or Automatic Reinforcement)

5. Develops an intervention that makes the targeted behavior inefficient while teaching an appropriate behavior that will reliably meet the person’s needs

6. Tries to ensure the “old way” does not get the person what they want, but the “new way” does, in as many environments as possible

7. Continues to gather data to determine if use of the undesired “old way” is reducing and the desired “new way” is increasing

8. Makes changes, if needed, to fine tune the intervention

Sounds simple, right?

Let’s take the process one step at a time.

1.Identifing the behavior to be changed

Three people will have three different ideas of what a “tantrum” is. To say “I want him to stop having tantrums” doesn’t explain what “tantrum” is. Therefore, the behaviors should be identified: hitting, kicking, spitting, and screaming may all be occurring when your child is “having a tantrum”, but another person may consider a foot stomp, a heavy sigh, crossed arms, and eye rolling to be a tantrum. See the difference?

2. Specifically (or operationally) defining it

Along those same lines, the behaviors identified above need to be clearly defined, particularly when others (such as teachers, day care workers, or babysitters) will be asked to identify and respond to these target behaviors. An example might be:

Hitting: Defined as making intentional, forceful contact with another person by using their hand or fist.

We use intentional (although we can’t really know “intent”), to differentiate from accidentally bumping into someone. We use forceful to differentiate from lightly tapping someone to gain attention. We use contact to indicate a connection was made, as opposed to an “attempt”. We say using their hand or fist to differentiate between “hitting” and “hitting with a (weapon)” or “hitting with their head” (which is head-butting, and we didn’t indicate that behavior previously), or “hitting with their feet” (which is a “kick” and will be defined separately).


We do this with EVERY behavior identified to be changed.

3. Gathering data on when and where it occurs and does not occur, or how the person is getting their needs met without the skill

Gathering data usually means we watch the person and write down when an undesired behavior occurs, or if a behavior we would like to see occurs at all. In the former, we might count the number of times a person hits during a time period. This may be the number of times in an hour, during a 6-hour school day, or during all waking hours. For behaviors that last a while, like humming or crying, we time how long the behavior occurs. We also look at environments in which it NEVER occurs, or occurs infrequently. We then ask, “What is the am and what is different in the environments?”

For behaviors we would like to teach as a replacement behavior for hitting, but don’t think the person knows (like how to ask for help) we teach it. If it is so infrequent (or weak) the parent, teacher, or babysitter does not recognize it, we shape (or strengthen) a stronger request.

4. Determining the function of the behavior (what purpose it serves)

There are only four functions in the world of behavior: attention, escape, automatic reinforcement and access to reinforcement. All behavior can be categorized into one of these functions. Watching TV (access to reinforcement and/or escape), jumping on the bed (automatic reinforcement), hitting when asked to clean their room (escape from task demand), hitting Mom when she is on the phone (attention), hitting a steel drum (automatic reinforcement or attention), hitting a sibling who is “hogging” the TV (potential access to reinforcement (if the sibling leaves or gives up the remote control), or attention (if parents always respond).

What is this? How can hitting have all four functions?

Remember we talked about BCBAs and BCaBAs having skills and using them in the correct context? This is where this comes into play. Behavior Analysts know how to analyze the data (observations) to determine function, then it is just a matter of:

5. Developing an intervention that makes the behavior targeted for change inefficient, while teaching an appropriate replacement behavior that will reliably meet the person’s needs

So, if a 4-year-old is hitting we would determine the function and:

For escape-maintained behavior we continue to re-direct to the task with minimal discussion while blocking the hitting (we do NOT typically give “cool down” time!) Reinforce starting the task with pleasant attention and assistance. We might teach asking for a break, or negotiating a start time.

For attention-maintained behavior we block or ignore the hitting and withhold attention until they ask appropriately or stop the inappropriate behavior. We also teach the child to “ask” and “wait” appropriately.

For automatic reinforcement, if the time or place are inappropriate for drumming we might give a less intrusive, but similar replacement, such as a large can with a plastic lid, stuffed with fabric to deaden the sound, until a decent time to drum. We reinforce drumming during appropriate times.

For access to reinforcement, don’t allow the aggressor to have the use of the TV until they are able to ask for it appropriately. Reinforce appropriate asking by giving control of the TV (even if have to say it so they can repeat it), or give a time when they can (“As soon as this show is over…” or “As soon as you brush your teeth”) We would also teach “ask” and “wait”.

6. Ensuring the “old way” does not get the person what they want, but the “new way” does, in as many environments as possible

Be consistent and diligent in reinforcing the correct behavior and not allowing the “old way” to work! Let everyone know how to address the behavior correctly (teachers, family, etc) for the fastest results!

7. Continuing to gather data to determine if use of the undesired “old way” is reducing and the desired “new way” is increasing

The only way to really know this is to count the number of times, or time the duration, of the behaviors. If not, on “good” days it will seem as though it is working, and on “bad” days it will seem as though it is not. You will be amazed at the progress an individual is making when you take data. Hitting may seem as though it is occurring “all the time”, but in fact, has been reduced from 5 times a day to 3 times a week, or the aforementioned tantrums now only include foot stomping and screaming for 3 minutes, instead of hitting, kicking, spitting, and screaming for 30 minutes!

8. Makes changes, if needed, to fine tune the intervention

Again, this is where the BCBA and the BCaBA can be critically needed. If you make too many changes in a short period of time you can’t track what changes were responsible for changing behavior, and it becomes impossible for the behavior changer, or the person whose behavior is being changed, to keep track of the behavior program! Knowing when to make changes, when to “ride it out”, and when to discontinue a behavior program requires expertise. To learn more about requirements for behavior analysts, go to our About Us page, or by clicking the BACB logo.