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Get To Know ABA

What is Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the science in which procedures derived from the principles of behavior are systematically applied to improve socially significant behavior to a meaningful degree and to demonstrate experimentally that the procedures employed were responsible for the improvement in behavior. Research has documented that ABA is an effective method for teaching and increasing a wide variety of valuable skills and reducing problem behavior for individuals with autism and related disorders. (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007)

Functional (Behavior) Assessment

An FBA is a process for identifying problem behaviors and looking for interventions that improve or eliminate those undesirable behaviors. The goal of an FBA is to gather the information that results in a hypothesis as to the function of the behavior (what is reinforcing the behavior). By looking at the environmental antecedents of what happened prior to the behavior and what occurred following the behavior one can determine what is maintaining the behavior. This information can’t then be used to provide an effective behavior plan.

Behaviors Serve a Function:
It is important to understand the intent of the behavior before applying the appropriate intervention. In determining the function, you need to understand the antecedent (what precedes the behavior), the behavior (the actual behavior itself), and the consequence (what they get or avoid from the behavior). This is the best way to reduce or increase the behavior in question.

Behaviors do not develop in a vacuum, nor do they maintain themselves without underlying
causes that continue to reinforce their usefulness. Behaviors occur for four reasons:

Social Attention: the first function is for social attention or attention seeking. This can occur in many forms like a baby crying to tell you it wants to be held, or a child to get your attention. Attention seeking can occur from jealousy, boredom, or fear of abandonment.

Escape: When something is an undesirable situation, and the person wants to get away or avoid the situation. The behavior is seen when someone is asked to wash their hands, complete an assignment, or do chores and wants to avoid the task.

Access to Tangibles: Someone wants access to a specific item or activity. If access is denied, this can lead to a chain reaction of negative behavior to gain the desired item, even if that item is not available to them.

Sensory Stimulation (Autonomic): Something that makes a person feel good. It can be something they do themselves that is reinforcing. For example, when a person twirls their hair, flaps their hands, jumps, looks through their fingers, and makes noises.

Using research based proven technologies, a FBA looks beyond the behavior itself to identify
possible antecedents or consequences that directly relate to the behavior itself. Once the
reason for the behavior is identified interventions can be implemented to either reduce or
increase the behavior in question.

Steps to a good Functional Assessment

  • Determine the target behavior be changed. Define it in measurable, observable terms.
  • Identify the antecedents and the consequences to the behavior.
  • Teach a new skill to replace the undesired behavior such as communicating they would like a break as opposed to running from the room.
  • Identify what strengthens or weakens the behavior and use it to remediate the behavior in question.
  • Keep apprised as to whether the program implemented is having the desired effect or needs to be revised.
  • View behaviors as a means of communicating.

Positive Behavior Supports

Positive behavior supports work in unison with functional behavior analysis.
The goal is to bring about positive behavior change while reducing unwanted behaviors.

  • Strategies for formulating a positive behavior support plan
    • Look to modifying the environment, curriculum or activity to help the individual be successful
      and reduce the need for unwanted behavior.
    • Teach a new skill to replace the unwanted behavior such as asking for a break instead of hitting.
    • Remember that positive behavior supports are a team effort. Everyone is a team and must work
      together to meet the person’s needs.
    • Be consistent. Consistency is the key to remediation of unwanted behaviors and the promotion of
      more appropriate behaviors. If the child learns he will not get what he wants with the unwanted
      behavior and received the desired item with the desired behavior they will learn to use the appropriate
      If they are able to get what they want occasionally using the unwanted behavior they
      will continue to use what they know in the past has worked for them.

Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT)

Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) is a specific format of teaching using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. DTT breaks down skills into clear beginnings and endings sequences that can then provide multiple opportunities to practice each part of the skill until mastery is obtained. Using prompting and reinforcement, children learn individual skills which are then combined into more complex repertoires such as brushing teeth, making their bed or any number of functional or academic skills. Research has proven that DTT is an effective method in teaching new or emerging skills to children with autism and related disorders that can later be generalized in all areas of their lives.

Pivotal Response Training (PRT)

Pivotal Response Training (PRT) is a loosely structured form of ABA that relies on naturalistic opportunities and naturally occurring consequences to increase generalization, increase spontaneity, and increase motivation while reducing prompt dependence often seen in more contrived teaching modalities. Research has shown that naturalistic teaching formats increase motivation because they promote child choice, turn-taking, and reinforcing initiation of learning events. PRT also works to target deficit areas often seen in children with autism such as increasing language skills, play skills, and social behavior.

Functional Life Skills

Functional curriculums are those skills that significantly affect the quality of life of an individual in the community around them. Individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities have significant delays in learning life skills and extra care is needed to address
these areas to ensure each individual reaches their full potential as active participants in home, school, and community environments.

Functional life skills include but are not limited to:

  • Personal care skills like dressing, bathing, and toileting.
  • Domestic skills like shopping and managing a home.
  • Recreational skills like entertaining friends, going bowling or having a party in the neighborhood.
  • Community skills like crossing the street, using sidewalks, and using public transportation.
  • Employment which includes knowing how to apply for and maintain a job.
  • Behavior management such as knowing how to regulate your feelings and appropriate ways to engage others around you.
  • Academic skills which may need to be modified or extra instruction provided for the student to participate within an
    inclusive setting while still receiving the necessary support in functional life skills they need.

Functional Communication Training (FCT)

FCT was introduced by Carr and Durand in 1985 as a treatment for problematic behavior in children with developmental disabilities. In this study the authors hypothesized that certain behavioral problems in children may be seen as nonverbal communication. Functional communication training (FCT) looks to establish an appropriate communicative behavior as a replacement to a challenging behavior the individual uses to attain what they want. Through the use of reinforcing appropriate communicative interactions such as asking for a break when they feel overwhelmed and need to escape to a more effective socially accepted wanted behavior, over time the reduction or elimination of the challenging behavior can be obtained. FCT can involve the use of Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS), Visual supports, communicative aids, etc. to promote more appropriate ways of communicating their needs. The overall goal of FCT is to teach the individual more appropriate alternative ways of expressing themselves as well as providing them the social and coping skills that promote choice, independence and community integration and lead to lasting change they can use throughout their life.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

The Picture Exchange Communication System or PECS approach is a modified applied behavior analysis program designed for early nonverbal symbolic communication training. Although not created to promote speech many found that indirectly some children began to spontaneously begin to use speech. PECS begins by teaching individuals through discrete trials to initiate communication in to obtain desired items and then generalize what they have learned to other areas using naturalistic teaching. PECS’s training occurs during typical activities within the natural settings of the classroom home and the community. Through a series of phases, students are taught to communicate using the PECS system within a broader positive behavioral support using ABA strategies that include chaining, shaping, prompting/cueing, modeling, and environmental engineering. The goal is to teach the student to spontaneously initiate communicative exchanges.

Visual Supports

We all use schedules in some way to keep us on track with our daily lives. For a child with a developmental disability, there is no difference. An activity schedule is a set of pictures or words that cues someone to follow a sequence of activities. These activities need to be broken down into even smaller increments that can be called a task analysis. An activity schedule can be very detailed or general depending on the needs of the individual.

The goal of using a schedule board is to promote independence, reduce anxiety and allow the individual to understand what is expected of them. Many individuals with autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities do not understand time and space, an activity schedule can help them learn a sequence of events to finish therefore presenting an element of time to get to the next item on their board. This helps them learn to transition as well as wait for things going on in their life.

Schedule boards can be set up in many ways. They can use check marks to let the person know when they have completed a task. A symbol can be taken to the desired area, so they know where they are supposed to go at a certain time, like stations in a classroom. They can be put in an envelope or put on the done side so they know it is finished and can focus on the next task at hand.

Any way you do it, an activity schedule helps promote independence, decreases stress from transitions, and helps the individual understand what is expected of them.

Social Skills Training

For individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, social skills can be a challenge. Understanding social skills which are normally learned through general life experiences do not come naturally and require training to help individuals on the autism spectrum understand what to do. Using social stories, activity schedules, as well as group and community interaction, are keys to helping individuals understand appropriate ways to
interact. Social skills are not just knowing when and how to say hello there are many areas that need to be addressed to truly teach appropriate
social interactions. They include but are not limited to:

  • Looking and maintaining appropriate eye contact.
  • Maintaining appropriate body space such as knowing when and when not to touch, hug or enter others’ personal space.
  • Developing a sense of empathy for other people and understanding their needs as well as your own.
  • Giving and receiving compliments.
  • Sharing interests, making friends, and maintaining friendships.
  • Understanding facial expressions and body language.
  • Determining appropriate topics for discussion.
  • Learning conversational skills such as greetings, goodbyes, and condolences.
  • Appropriate table manners.
  • Understanding community activities, laws, and services.
  • Appropriate grooming and expectations.
  • Understanding dating and sexual etiquette.
  • Interacting with authority figures.
  • Learning to judge social situations and the interactions that are needed to maintain appropriate acceptable behavior within the environment in question.

Social Stories

A social story is a learning tool that helps parents, professionals, and teachers the ability the supports to provide a safe and understandable exchange of information to individuals with autism or other intellectual/developmental disabilities. A Social story describes concepts, skills, contexts, or actions. They are a brief story that explains the relevant social cues of information to specific situations. Social stories explain what to do in certain situations and how to respond to those situations. A social story is written to assist the individual in understanding certain events, situations, or strategies to deal with things that happen in their life in a more effective manner. Social stories are based on specific needs that relate to a specific area that an individual needs help to understand. They help individuals learn to cope to react to situations as well as explain how to deal with changes in their life that may occur. Schools use social stories to explain appropriate classroom behaviors and academic concerns as well as way to reduce feelings of anxiety and frustration that may lead to inappropriate behavioral expressions.

The goals of social stories

  • Can be part of an academic, behavioral issues or communication program.
  • Can teach individual appropriate social interactions with others.
  • Promote independence and social skills that will aid the individual in participating more fully in life.
  • Reduce stress and frustration in situations that they are unfamiliar with.

Using social stories

  • Social Stories can be read again and again by either the individual or another person.
  • Discuss each area while reading the story to help the individual understand what the story and concepts are about.
  • Provide reinforcement for understanding the story and making the appropriate choices he is learning.
  • Cue the individual to parts of the story in situations that arise that relate directly to the story to show the individual real-life examples of when the story would apply.
  • Discuss the appropriate activity or social cue that should be used in that situation referring to the book when these situations arise.
  • Reinforce the individual for any attempt to use the strategies in the social story and make good choices throughout the day.

Premack Contingency

The Premack principle states that a person will perform a less preferred activity (low probability behavior) to gain access to a more preferred activity (high probability behavior). A less preferred activity is defined as one in which the individual is unlikely to choose to do it on their own, thus developing the term low probability behavior. A more preferred activity is an activity that the individual would likely choose to engage in on their own, a high probability behavior.

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., Heward, W.L (1987. Applied behavior analysis. Columbus Merrill Pub.

Understanding the Four Types of Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI)

(differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors) when replacing a problem-target behavior with more appropriate behavior that competes with the ability to perform the negative behavior at the same time. This approach to reinforcement uses a behavior that is “incompatible” with the targeted problem behavior. By having the individual engage in the incompatible behavior, they are unable to continue the problem behavior. Over time, the goal is to reduce the negative actions with something at in more appropriate or desirable than the negative behavior. For example, if a child is drawing, they cannot also be chewing their fingernails

Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors (DRA)

(differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors) rewards choosing alternative behaviors over maladaptive behavior, this is done by providing a highly motivating alternative or something that reduces the need to use the negative behavior. This method involves removing a problem behavior by reinforcing the adaptive, alternative behavior. However, the adaptive behavior probably will not be incompatible with the targeted behavior, so theoretically, In this situation a person could learn that asking for a break is much easier than yelling, screaming, and acting out which expends a lot of energy and emotions.  

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors (DRO)

(differential reinforcement of other behavior) rewards the absence of maladaptive behavior. Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO): In this scenario, the individual is rewarded for the absence of the behavior while being reinforced for other positive actions. By using positive praise for appropriate actions, the individual is more apt to continue to do positive things to receive that reinforcement. By doing this, the person may associate the lack of this targeted behavior with feeling good rather than the stimulation of the targeted behavior feeling good.

There are two subtypes of DRO. These are:

  1. Interval, when reinforcement is given only after a specific amount of time passes.
  2. Momentary, when reinforcement is given at a specific moment in time if the targeted behavior is not performed.

Differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (DRL)

(differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior) rewards lowered rates of maladaptive behaviors rather than seeking to extinguish the target behavior altogether. Differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior rate of behavior and fade reinforcement to more normal rates. Ultimately, by rewarding less frequent occurrences of the behavior, or less severe instances of the behavior, we can reduce the target behavior or severity that confounds their life, and perhaps one day they are able to extinguish the behavior completely.

(2020) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders

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