Understanding the principles of ABA and how they're applied

Principles of ABA

If you've ever struggled through breaking a bad habit, you've likely experienced firsthand that it can take longer than expected. Influencing behavior — whether it’s your own or another person’s — isn’t easy, but it can be done.

Teachers, social workers, clinicians, therapists, behavior analysts and even animal trainers use the science of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to help others live fulfilled and meaningful lives. The basic principles of ABA can be applied in many ways, according to UMass Global instructor and certified behavior analyst Dr. Aimee Massafra.

Join us as we explore the history of applied behavior analysis and its core principles with expert guidance from Dr. Massafra.

A brief history of behavioral science

The roots of ABA can be traced back to Ivan Pavlov’s famous 1890 Pavlovian dog study. His research explored the stimulus-response (SR) relationship in animals. He is best known for his experiment where he used classical conditioning to train a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell.

Pavlov, along with his contemporaries, continued to focus on how thoughts and feelings affected behavior throughout the early 1900s. Everything changed in 1913 when psychologist John B. Watson published a groundbreaking article known as “The Behaviorist Manifesto.”

He theorized that people act exclusively in response to their environment and not their inner emotions. While we now know this to be an oversimplification of the human experience, Watson made great contributions to the field. He is credited with eliminating subjectivity from psychology, placing it on par with the physical and biological sciences.

Building on Watson’s research, mid-century psychologist B.F. Skinner would become the “Father of Behavioral Analysis for his theories of operant conditioning. He believed that the consequences following a response were more important for behavioral change. For example, a positive consequence to one’s response will encourage that same response in the future. Skinner’s work was instrumental in the formation of the four ABA principles.

Principles of behavior: The four guiding truths of ABA that inform all of the many strategies encompassed in this discipline. They are: 

  1. Behavior is controlled by consequences.
  2. Reinforcement (reward) increases or strengthens behavior.
  3. Punishment decreases or weakens behavior.
  4. Extinction is the process of withholding reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior.

ABA as we now know it didn’t emerge until the 1960s with a seminal article published by Baer, Wolf and Risley at the University of Kansas. The paper illustrated how behavioral analysis could be applied in different settings, inspiring later psychologists like Ivar Lovaas to use ABA in his work with children on the autism spectrum.

The basics of ABA

A widely quoted description of modern Applied Behavior Analysis reads: “The science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior, and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for behavior change.”

To truly comprehend this concept, it’s critical to understand the definitions of a few important terms.

Behavior: An observable, measurable action by a living organism.

While most English speakers are very familiar with the word “behavior,” it has a distinctly different definition when used in the context of ABA. For instance, you can’t label something like “frustration” as a behavior. This is a concept that must be broken down into countable actions, like vocal protests, furrowed eyebrows and loud sighs

Dr. Massafra suggests that a behavior must pass the following three tests in order to be classified as such:

  • The stranger test: Can someone observe and accurately collect data on the behavior after reading the definition?
  • The so-what test: Does the behavior impact the individual’s well-being or the well-being of those around them?
  • The dead man’s test: Can a dead man do it? This query helps remind practitioners that the absence of a response (i.e., not talking or not raising a hand in class) is not a measurable behavior.

Socially significant: A behavior that is important to the individual, their family and society. 

How does one decide if a behavior is socially significant or not? The most significant consideration is whether the behavior is of importance to the person receiving treatment. The family and ABA practitioner also weigh in on these socially significant behaviors targeted at improving the life experience of the individual. This could include things like:

  • Social/relationship skills
  • Self-care
  • Leisure and relaxation
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Self-advocacy

Understanding why a behavior occurs

Now that you know how to precisely define a behavior, the next step is discerning the function of the act itself. It helps to think about it from the other person’s perspective. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What is the payoff of the behavior?
  • What is the person getting (or trying to get) from engaging in this behavior?
  • What is the most important thing that the individual wants to gain (or avoid) by using this behavior?

Identifying the purpose of a behavior allows ABA professionals to create an effective intervention plan. Broadly speaking, behaviors can be sorted into the following four categories:

  • Access to attention: Behavior is rewarded with attention by adults or peers. For example, a student might start shouting during a lesson with the hopes of being noticed by their classmates.
  • Access to tangibles: Behavior is rewarded with a desired item or preferred activity. One classic scenario is a child who cries and whines for candy in the checkout aisle. The parent acquiesces, so the child learns that this behavior is effective.
  • Access to escape: Behavior is rewarded with the removal of a demand or aversive. Typically, people are trying to escape boring tasks, reprimands, physical demands and non-preferred activities, people or spaces.
  • Sensory: Behavior is automatically reinforced with a pleasant nervous system response or sensation. Cracking knuckles, clapping hands, bouncing knees and fidgeting are everyday examples of sensory-seeking behavior.

What is ABA therapy?

When a behavior occurs in excess or presents a social, health or safety issue, it is referred to as challenging or undesirable behavior. This could include things like aggression, deception, self-harm, overeating, not eating and self-isolation. Someone struggling with these response patterns might benefit greatly from ABA therapy performed by a trained practitioner.

According to Psychology Today, ABA therapy is “a type of therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, reading and academics as well as adaptive learning skills, such as fine motor dexterity, hygiene, grooming, domestic capabilities, punctuality and job competence.”

ABA professionals work with patients and their families to identify target undesirable behaviors and devise a plan to address them. Often, this involves combining ABA with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to identify environmental causes for the issue at hand.

Who benefits from ABA?

While ABA is most often associated with the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is an expansive field with many subspecialties in business, marketing, education and healthcare. ABA practitioners study and work with diverse populations, including:

  • Substance and gambling addicts
  • People struggling with anxiety, depression and eating disorders
  • The elderly and traumatic brain injury survivors
  • Athletes
  • Students and parents
  • Consumers

Explore more about this meaningful career

It’s clear that understanding the inner workings of the mind is a complex yet rewarding challenge. Applied behavior analysis is just one of the many strategies that scientists have designed to aid in this endeavor. If you want to dig deeper into ABA, perhaps you should consider it as a future career path.

Learn more about the professional possibilities in our article “What is applied behavior analysis? Exploring careers in this versatile field.”

Explore our free library of on-demand ABA webinars for more professional development opportunities, including Dr. Massafra’s full presentation on behavior modification


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