What is applied behavior analysis? Exploring careers in this versatile field

If you’ve ever tried to give up caffeine or wake up earlier, you know that changing your habits is difficult. Behavior is a science. There are numerous factors at play that we don’t even notice. This doesn’t mean making changes is impossible. You may just need to take a slow, strategic approach.


“If you have enough opportunities to practice a skill and you receive adequate reinforcement for working on that skill, it will develop,” explains Sharon Noble, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and instructor at University of Massachusetts Global.


This is one of the core principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA). It’s a scientific concept that provides a way for people to develop new behaviors and discard old ones.


But what is applied behavior analysis more specifically? To fully answer that question, it’s worth retracing the history of ABA, exploring some of the related techniques and discovering a few of the industries that use it most often.


What is applied behavior analysis?


Applied behavior analysis is a scientific discipline that uses environmental cues to alter behavior.  There’s more to ABA than theory, though. It’s really concerned with how we respond in different circumstances.


“The basic philosophy of ABA is to observe action in the context of environment,” Noble explains. She adds the following:


It’s more than just a theory but a pragmatic field that strives to be effective in problem solving.

Professionals who leverage ABA, such as Noble, aim to improve behavior by adjusting the relationship between an individual’s actions and the consequences they evoke. These experts pay close attention to when behaviors occur and don’t occur; they measure these instances with data about duration, frequency and intensity of the behaviors. Then, they can begin to design solutions that target different motivations and actions. 


A brief history of applied behavior analysis


Like any scientific discipline, ABA developed over time. Its roots can be traced back to Ivan Pavlov’s famously referenced Pavlovian dog study in 1890.


Transitioning into the early 1900s, psychology was primarily focused on internal thoughts and feelings. In 1913, however, John B. Watson introduced what’s known as behaviorism. Watson argued that the way a person acts is affected by their environment rather than just their mind. This theory eventually became the foundation for ABA. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner would contribute additional developments, resulting in him being regarded today as the Father of Behavioral Analysis.


But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the term Applied Behavioral Analysis actually emerged. The field was born when a group of academics at the University of Kansas – Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf and Todd Risley – wrote an article describing behavior analysis in applied settings. Psychologists like Ivar Lovaas, later used this application in his work with children on the autism spectrum.


Thanks to decades of research, ABA is now recognized as an evidence-based practice. It has continued to develop over time and now includes many different techniques. ABA is also leveraged in a variety of industries.


Techniques that are involved in applied behavior analysis


ABA offers a lot flexibility for using different strategies. Each of them stems from a few core ideas ‒ what many call the ABCs of applied behavioral analysis.


  • Antecedent – What triggers a behavior.
  • Behavior – The action that responds to an antecedent.
  • Consequence – The reinforcement mechanism associated with a behavior, which can be either positive or negative.

After observing the way an individual acts and identifying different antecedents, behaviors and consequences, a behavior analyst can begin to apply techniques that manipulate the environment to affect action. Their goal is to associate positive consequences with positive behaviors and negative consequences with negative behaviors. Here are some of the most common methods they use to accomplish this:


  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT) – This technique is most often used to teach a new behavior by breaking it down into a sequence or "discrete trial." For example, a trained professional might help someone develop appropriate conversation skills by separating an interaction into a series of exchanges, providing prompts and rewards at each step.
  • Token Economies – Whether you realize it or not, you’re likely already familiar with this ABA technique. “Loyalty programs that collect points for frequent purchases utilize token economics,” Noble explains. Providing a systematic reinforcement through redeemable rewards is a means of producing consistent behavior.
  • Natural Environment Training (NET) – This approach is a form of therapy that involves working in a person’s natural environment rather than in a structured setting. It also uses rewards already in that individual’s life rather than introducing new ones. For example, a behavior analyst might use a child’s favorite toy to reinforce healthy behavior.
  • Negative punishment – Sometimes, discouraging unhealthy behavior is necessary. But instead of using potentially harmful means, negative punishment can simply involve taking away privileges ‒ screen time or dessert are examples often used with children. This can help communicate to an individual that their actions are unproductive.

While these techniques may seem simple enough, they require an experienced behavior analyst to know when and how to execute them appropriately. Often, multiple behaviors, motivations, and environments need to be distinguished, which is why it’s common for professionals to combine several techniques to reach an effective solution.


3 Industries that rely on applied behavior analysis


Behavior analysts work in a wide variety of industries, including animal science, health care, athletic training and more. But other professionals can also use ABA to their advantage as they work to drive their professional lives forward.


1. ABA in education

Many of the classroom management tools you're familiar with come from ABA. Handing out gold stars, having students raise their hands before speaking and earning extra recess time are all behavioral techniques that teachers use. ABA also offers a more comprehensive approach for students who may be struggling. Noble knows this from personal experience in helping students develop new skills.


“I used a lot of reinforcement when students attempted to do things correctly and offered a lot of choices to make school interesting,” she reflects.


This kind of extra attention is particularly important in special education. In fact, ABA is one of the best approaches to working with students on the autism spectrum. Not only can it address social interaction, but also communication and development challenges. Regardless of the situation, Noble agrees that ABA is a useful tool in education.


“I had a lot of fun with my students,” she says. “It was so rewarding to see them learn to love school and become confident in their abilities.”


2. ABA in business

Also known as organizational behavior management, ABA in business relies on many of the same techniques we’ve already discussed. Obviously, business professionals need to keep group behavior dynamics in mind as most products and services need to work for a wide range of different users. 


Professionals in marketing and advertising can research the behavior of different customer groups to help develop better solutions and identify new ways to reach them. By studying consumer behavior, marketers can learn more about what customers are looking for, along with how and when they’re looking for it. 


This information can be used to make the customer experience more intuitive than ever before. Noble’s favorite example of this is very familiar. "Smartphones are the masters of using behavioral principles to teach us what to do and what not to do,” she says. 


By prompting action through things like highlighted boxes or animation, a digital interface can direct consumers to different screens without any written instructions. Digital effects and vibrations reinforce when someone’s made the right move.


ABA can also be effective for managers who oversee a considerable number of employees. This discipline continues to be important in the area of performance management at all levels of an organization, including among executives.


3. ABA in mental health treatment

While mental health is often associated with internal issues and talk therapy, many mental health disorders have behavioral components. Depression and anxiety, for example, may be accompanied by substance abuse. A practitioner can help address an issue like this by combining ABA and cognitive treatment techniques to identify the environmental conditions that are contributing to the overall issue.


ABA can also help treat other disorders including schizophrenia, anorexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD). By better understanding both mental and behavioral health, professionals in this realm can create more holistic treatment plans. Relevant positions include psychology, psychiatry, nursing and social work. Professionals in all of these disciplines can specialize in focused areas of behavioral health.


Apply this discipline in your career

Whether you work in special education, social work, business or another industry, the principles of ABA may help you better understand those you serve. You could also advance your career by learning to effectively leverage some of the techniques mentioned above.


While you now have a better understanding of how to do that, you may find it useful to obtain some formal training as well. Pursuing additional education could even give your resume a boost that will make employers take notice.


There are a few graduate-level paths you can take to further your understanding of ABA. Find out how completing a seven-course program could move your career forward by taking a look at University of Massachusetts Global’s Applied Behavior Analysis Graduate Certificate. You could also consider obtaining a focused graduate degree in special education, school psychology or another field relevant to your career path. 



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