ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, is a form of science that involves applying techniques based on learning principles to change behavior.
Once known as “behavior modification,” Applied Behavior Analysis involves analyzing the dynamic between a patient’s behavior and their environment, as a means to help them develop socially acceptable alternatives to toxic behaviors. While widely used, however, many people still may not fully understand how it works.
This article considers the complexities of Applied Behavior Analysis and presents some tech solutions that could help you as a health provider to apply it more effectively.
What is Applied Behavior Analysis?
The beginning of ABA can be found in a 1959 study by Teodoro Ayllon and Jack Michael – The Psychiatric Nurse as a Behavioral Engineer. At the time of its writing, they were training staff and nurses at a psychiatric hospital to use a token economy with mostly schizophrenic patients, based on principles of behavior modification.
Over the years, this model has been applied in patients with various behavioral issues – it has since evolved to include the clear distinction that to be effective psychology tools, ABA techniques must be personalized to suit the requirements of the patient’s environment.
At its core, it is as a way for patients to develop the necessary skills or tools that they need to fully integrate into society.
7 Principles of ABA
The scientific community follows seven key principles of ABA, as developed in 1968 by Baer, Wolf, and Risley:
Outlined in the table below, the 7 principles describe ABA’s key goals and best practice:
ABA has the clear goal of helping the person changing it for their benefit.
For instance, ABA will analyze eating patterns in a person who eats too little or too much, as a step to understand why they are doing it, and then know what they must do to modify it.
In a non-applied analysis, the researcher would just analyze the eating pattern as is, for scientific reasons.
ABA focuses primarily on characteristics of the behavior of a person to help them change.
As a result, the behavior must always be correlated with the social environment of the person.
Health providers must always ask what the negative impact of this behavior is, either on the individual or on the community.
ABA relies on the health giver’s understanding of how the behavioral patterns affect the individuals, and what can be done to change them.
The behavioral change must be measured so that the effects can be controlled, and in the end, the person achieves change that can help them.
Everything must be clearly defined, so that other behaviorists can understand what is changing, and can continue the work in a different setting.
5. Conceptually Systematic
ABA should not just produce a set of effective interventions that can help shift or change a specific behavioral pattern.
For example, replacing cigarette smoking with chewing gum as a practice does not meet the requirements of an ABA system.
There must be clear evidence that the ABA system works, and the individual’s life improves as a result of its applications.
The change in behavior must be long-term and sustainable even when the individual changes their environment setting.
Additionally, in 2005, Heward and colleagues suggested 5 potentially new characteristics to be added.
Summarized here, these describe the importance of accountability, transparency, feasibility, empowerment, and optimism in ABA practice:
ABA must be able to demonstrate that its methods are effective, through repeated measures of success
ABA interventions must be published and open to be reviewed by the scientific community extensively.
ABA must be available and reasonably easy to implement to a variety of individuals who may need to use it, not just health providers, but also parents, teachers, counselors, etc.
ABA should provide practitioners with feedback on the effectiveness of their interventions, and be in itself a form of encouragement
ABA interventions have a strong component of doing good for society, not just the patients themselves.
How Does It Work?
As we’ve seen, ABA follows a large number of criteria, however, in reality, these techniques can be easily adapted to meet a patient’s individual requirements.
Additionally, these interventions can be applied in a variety of settings, such as at the therapist’s office or home, school, within e-health solutions, and anywhere else in the community.
Who Does ABA Help?
ABA is commonly used as a form of treatment for children with autism, though its applications have been found useful as a part of mental health treatment for other conditions as well.
- Cognitive impairment
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Anger issues, and
- Borderline personality disorders.
ABA works by employing several different psychological assessments and techniques, specially designed to help an individual learn skills they can apply to everyday life to modify certain behaviors.
In the next section, we take a look at six such approaches.
6 Techniques Used in ABA Therapy
Some of the most popular ABA techniques used in different therapy settings include:
- Positive Reinforcement,
- Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC),
- Negative Reinforcement,
- Generalization, and
- Analysis of Actions.
1. Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is one main technique used in ABA.
When a particular action of behavior is followed by a reward, meaning something that is of value to the individual, a person is more likely to repeat the action of behavior. Over time, they will repeat it even when the reward is removed, because they begin to associate that specific behavior with the reward regardless of its presence.
Once the desired behavior to change is identified, the therapist must find the goal behavior, and encourage the patient to repeat it.
When they successfully do so, the therapist will present the patient with the reward – praise, a toy, an activity, or anything else that the patient perceived as valuable.
Through positive reinforcement, a patient is more likely to repeat the positive behavior, and in time this can lead to meaningful change in their behavior.
2. Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence
Also known as the ABC of ABA, this technique helps practitioners understand the full picture of how a specific behavior manifests and its effects.
Practically speaking, the practitioner must:
- Identify what occurs right before the behavior that needs to change, sometimes called a “trigger.” This is the antecedent that can explain why the behavior takes place.
- Identify what results from the antecedent, and define the behavior, and
- Identify the consequences of the behavior, be in on the individual, or perhaps on the community.
Here’s an example of a behavioral ABC:
- Antecedent: The therapist asks the patient to follow them for the group session. The patient is painting by themselves.
- Behavior: The patient refuses to go to the group session, and continues to paint.
- Consequence: The therapist removes the painting tools from the patient.
When you identify these key components of the behavior, it’s easier to understand what needs to be done to help the person change patterns. In this context, the goal would be to convince the patient to come to group therapy and not isolate themselves from the rest.
One key change here would be to suggest a different type of behavior to replace the natural one.
Explain to the patient they can ask for five more minutes of painting and they will receive them. When asked to come to group therapy, if they refuse, remind them of this 5-minute rule.
Over time, the initial behavior will be replaced with a more acceptable one. The patient can have five more minutes of painting and then come to group therapy.
3. Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement in ABA includes strategies such as time-out, or not allowing the client to do something he usually likes to do.
It is the way by which therapists take away something favorable from the person’s environment when he fails to act desirably. It motivates the person to learn faster and show the desired results to get back the reward.
Fading as an ABA technique is generally utilized for individuals with impulse control or acute mood disorders. It is also an intervention of choice for some types of autism where the therapist probes the client to unlearn an adverse behavior and substitute it with the desired action.
For example, kids who struggle with self-care may be repeatedly prompted to brush their teeth, tie their shoes, or eat by themselves until they fully internalize the response and can act on it without instructions.
Generalization helps children learn faster. Therapists use rules that hold more or less in all situations, for example:
- Using table manners and the three magic words.
- Not abusing or cursing others.
- Reading and writing with the right spellings.
- Eating with a spoon instead of hands.
- Washing and cleaning after yourself.
Children learn to use these rules and apply them to other walks of life, as well. For instance, when a child understands the semantics of spelling and vocabulary, he can successfully manifest the same in skills like singing, recitation, or other forms of creative activities. Generalization works exceptionally well for autistic children as it minimizes the effort of learning, but maximizes its effects.
6. Analysis of Actions
Task analysis is a crucial component of any ABA intervention. It involves evaluating the efficacy of therapy and assessments, asking feedback from clients and families, and reviewing the progress at each step of the treatment process.
The Applied Behavior Analysis Controversy
Even if you’ve only briefly heard about ABA, there is a high chance you’ve also heard about some controversy surrounding this form of therapy, particularly when it comes to its applications for children with autism.
However, it’s important to note these controversies have less to do with ABA as a form of therapy, and more with how it is used by some practitioners.
A Closer Look
Specifically, it was common in the past to use a practice called “punishment” in combination with other types of ABA tools or methods, which today is generally frowned upon.
Even without this practice, some ABA strategies may seem too harsh in certain conditions when it comes to children with autism because they involve a lot of repetition without allowing for the methods to bend even on occasion.
The practices must be applied even if the child refuses to, and the practitioner must insist on reinforcing the positive behavior regardless of what the child wants.
But this is a rather cold approach to ABA, according to the Child Mind Institute, which says it doesn’t hold much weight in today’s treatment of autistic children.
Additionally, most ABA therapies in this context are play-based and try to stimulate the child as well as teach positive behaviors.
ABA Therapy in a Modern Setting
ABA therapy can be incredibly useful as it can take place anywhere, including the person’s home where they feel more comfortable.
In recent years, telehealth tools have been gaining popularity as a cost-efficient way to help people get access to health care with the use of mobile therapy technology, so it’s not all that surprising to find various applications that help therapists, mental health coaches, and other practitioners apply ABA principles quickly, through the use of a smartphone or tablet.
How Does Technology Help?
What’s more, research seems to suggest these Applied Behavior Analysis apps can be very useful.
One review, for instance, has found that ABA digital technology has an important advantage to traditional, face-to-face ABA: it can be easily adapted to accommodate a patient’s individual requirements, from their preferred learning styles to their task or requirement difficulties.
Some apps can even adjust these automatically based on how a person uses the applications.
ABA digital technology has an important advantage to traditional, face-to-face ABA: it can be easily adapted to accommodate a patient’s individual requirements, from their preferred learning styles to their task or requirement difficulties.
The review also concluded that these apps are even more effective when they are used as an extension of the learning process. So a person may go to ABA therapy and sit with a therapist, but they could also use ABA software at home to further their improvement.
Since Applied Behavior Analysis depends on repetition, these apps are extremely valuable. Face-to-face time with a therapist, be they professional ABA therapists, parents, or counselors, is often limited, which can influence how quickly the person learns a new behavior.
But just as the methods of ABA can vary, so can the apps available.
8 ABA Therapy Applications
Here are a few ABA therapy applications that may prove useful:
Way of Life presents as a habit-tracking app, though it can be effectively used by therapists to help their patients keep track of their behaviors and realize their impact. The tool also contains built-in motivators that can help patients embrace new behaviors, and encourage them to continue on their path.
Additionally, the app can even spot negative behavior, so if the patient is going down the wrong path, the app can signal it before these behaviors become habits. Additionally, the app has a diary feature that patients can use to write down more information about what they are feeling or experiencing, and then discuss them later on in therapy.
Way of Life
Goal-setting, Habit Tracking, Behavior Analysis
The ABA KIT is a teaching kit developed by ABA specialists to help parents or caregivers easily apply these principles when caring for children with autism. The set of materials is designed to help stimulate and develop the cognitive and verbal skills of the child.
The app is easy to use at home and can be beneficial for parents or caregivers who want to expand on their child’s education outside of the therapist’s office. It has different levels of difficulties you can choose, so the child will be comfortable navigating the app.
Receptive and expressive language development, Speech therapy, Spatial relations, Cognitive and verbal skills development
Habitica is designed as an app to help people improve their daily lives, and it can be effectively used as a way to improve one’s behavior even in a non-clinical setting. It gamifies tasks into little monsters a person has to conquer, so it may be a useful tool for teenagers or even adults with behavioral issues.
The app is engaging, so it most likely won’t take much to convince a person to use it. It also has built-in communities, where people can interact with each other and support each other to complete tasks, so a user may get a better feeling of support while using this app.
Habit-building, Productivity, Goal-Setting, Occupational Therapy
iReward is an app designed for parents or guardians to give positive reinforcements to children for good behavior. You can use the app to create categories on the behaviors you want to monitor and award stars when their requirements are met. Guardians can establish with the child how many stars they need to accumulate to receive the reward.
This is a great way to encourage good behavior without having to worry about being harsh on the child for not completing a task.
Reward Charting, Goal-setting, Habit development
T2 Mood Tracker is an app created to help people track their emotions, and be able to then share them with a caregiver. This is a very useful tool for those who suffer from emotional disorders, as it comes with six pre-loaded issues: general well-being, depression, anxiety, head injury, stress, and PTSD. Users can rate these behavioral categories and keep track of their emotional state, then use these results to discuss their behavioral patterns with their therapist.
When a person is following ADA therapy for a mood disorder, the therapist needs to have a full scope of what the person is feeling when interacting with their environment. The T2 Mood Tracker helps them gather this information, which can then be used to develop a more effective treatment plan.
T2 Mood Tracker
The First Then Visual Schedule is specially designed to offer behavioral support for children with weak communication and social skills.
It is an easy and affordable application supported in most popular smartphones, tablets, and computers. The app covers several activities and other familiar settings that are ideal for schools and other care centers for helping children understand and express themselves.
First Then Visual Schedule
Child Therapy, Communication and Development, Social Skills Development
Marz Consulting, a leading technology firm based in the US, developed the Behavior Tracking Pro to help mental health professionals record specific mannerisms and preserve them for future reference.
Behavior Tracker is an iOS software. It allows users to select the specific actions that need to be modified and record them for further review. It is a popular application used by teachers and special educators who wish to retain information for monitoring progress and showing to family members.
Behavior Tracker Pro
Behavior Tracking – Autism and General, ABC
Autism Track is an ideal tool for ABA therapists working with childhood autism. It is specially designed to help special educators and mental health professionals to map the positive and negative behavior patterns and track down all the changes seen during the interventions.
Autism Track has features that help in improving eye-contact, aggression, speech, and motor functions. The interface of the application is user-friendly and serves as a useful tool for recording medication, evaluating progress, and predicting prognosis.
Autism Tracker Pro
Behavior Tracking – Autism and General
Applied Behavior Analysis is a complex form of therapy, but the bottom line is clear: ABA can only work if its methodology is structured based on the particular needs of the person whose behavior needs to change.
Think of ABA as a framework, or a set of principles. There are countless resources to inspire therapists and other caregivers, and help them apply ABA principles, but that alone won’t guarantee its efficacy. To ultimately improve patients’ lives, ABA therapy must work to help an individual create long-term behavioral change – not something that can be done with a one-size-fits-all therapy module.
Do you use ABA with your clients? What are your thoughts and opinions on how best to implement it? Share your ideas below.
- ^ Ayllon, T., & Michael, J. (1959). The Psychiatric Nurse as a Behavioral Engineer 1. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 2(4), 323.
- ^ Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 91.
- ^ Lerman, D. C. (2008). An Introduction to the Second Issue of Behavior Analysis in Practice (BAP). Behavior Analysis in Practice, 1(2), 2.
- ^ Slocum, T. A., Detrich, R., Wilczynski, S. M., Spencer, T. D., Lewis, T., & Wolfe, K. (2014). The evidence-based practice of applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 37(1), 41.
- ^ Morris, E. K., Smith, N. G., & Altus, D. E. (2005). BF Skinner’s contributions to applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 28(2), 99.
- ^ The Atlantic. (2016). Is the Most Common Therapy for Autism Cruel? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/08/aba-autism-controversy/495272/
- ^ Child Mind Institute. (2020). The Controversy Around ABA. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/controversy-around-applied-behavior-analysis/
- ^ Allen, M. L., Hartley, C., & Cain, K. (2016). iPads and the use of “apps” by children with autism spectrum disorder: do they promote learning?. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1305.