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Applied Behaviour Analysis: 59 Terms and phrases translated for easy understanding

Read time: 7 minutes

Therapist and child doing applied behaviour analysis.

There are so many terms and acronyms that you’ll be encountering when you enter the world of applied behaviour analysis. It can be very confusing, especially because some of the words that are commonly used in ABA are used with another meaning in common language. I’m going to give the definitions in terms of children but they can be applied to anyone (adult or child).

Applied Behaviour Analysis Definitions of Common Words/Phrases:

ABA Therapy: Applied Behaviour Analysis is the application of the sciences of learning and behaviour to teach, increase or decrease behaviours that are meaningful to the client and their family. 

ABLLS-r (The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills – revised): This is a tool that is used as an assessment, curriculum guide and skill tracker when doing applied behaviour analysis. It was created by Dr. James Partington. Similar to the VB MAPP, it tests whether the child has specific language skills. The skills that are measured are sequenced from easiest to most difficult.  There are 25 domains, some of which include: expressive language, receptive language, writing, imitation, fine and gross motor skills. 

Accuracy: How close to the target something is or how correct it is. 

Acquisition Target: A target that is currently being taught.  This is a behaviour or skill that has not been learned yet. 

Adjusted Age: This refers to the age of your child based on their due date. For example, if your child was born 6 months ago but was 2 months early, they would have an adjusted age of 4 months. Doctors or therapists will sometimes use adjusted age when speaking about the development of your child.  People usually stop referring to adjusted age when the child is around 2 years old. 

Antecedent: In applied behaviour analysis an antecedent is what happens before a behaviour. Think of it like the trigger for the behaviour.  

Aversive: A stimulus that your child finds unpleasant or bothersome.  Aversives can be used as a punisher to decrease behaviour or the removal of an aversive can be used as a reinforcer to increase behaviour.  Your therapists should not be using aversives in your child’s programming without having a discussion with you and gaining your consent.

Behaviour: This is what the child does. Behaviours have to be measurable and observable. 

Behaviour Intervention Plan (BIP): This is a plan that will target the reduction of challenging behaviour for your child. They should always include: a specific definition of the behaviour, antecedent strategies, reactive strategies, a replacement behaviour and a mastery criteria.

Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA): This is a masters or PhD level therapist who has completed the requirements (specific courses, over 1500 hours of work experience and passed a credentialing exam) of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.  

Chaining:  In applied behaviour analysis chaining is when a skill is broken down into steps and then the steps are taught in isolation then brought together to form a longer sequence (or a chain). You can forwards chain (teach the first step then the second and so on), backwards chain (prompt all steps except the last, then prompt all steps except the last two and so on) or you can teach the whole chain (fade prompting across each step of the chain at one time). 

Chronological Age:  This refers to the amount of time your child has been alive. Even if they were born prematurely, this is the number of days/months/years that they’ve been on the planet. 

Clinical Supervisor (CS): In Ontario, a CS is the BCBA who is responsible for overseeing your child’s ABA program.  They make clinical decisions (decisions about what and how to teach) and collaborate with you and the rest of your child’s team in supporting your child as much as required. 

Consequence: In applied behaviour analysis, this is what happens immediately after a behaviour.  Consequences are neither good nor bad, they simply follow a behaviour. 

Deprivation: When your motivation for something is really high because you haven’t been exposed to it in a long time.  When you stop using or consuming something your desire, your need for that item grows. 

Developmental Age: This is the age at which your child demonstrating most of their skills. Doctors and researchers have set all of the developmental milestones to specific age windows.  For example, most children learn to speak in two-word sentences at around 18-24 months. Your child’s developmental age is the age at which they’re functioning emotionally, physically, cognitively or socially. Developmental age is not always correlated to chronological age.

Discrete Trial Training: This is a method of presenting the child with small segments of learning that are repeated, known as trials. Often the skill is presented in 5 or 10 trial blocks.  The blocks are repeated a few times a day until the child can demonstrate the skill without prompting. 

Discriminative Stimulus (SD): In applied behaviour analysis this is the demand, request or question that elicits a specific response.  The presence of an SD signals the availability of reinforcement.  

Duration: The length of a behaviour.  

Echoic: A verbal operant meaning repeating.  When the speaker repeats what they heard from someone else.  For example, when a father says “bedtime” and the child repeats “bedtime”. In applied behaviour analysis programs, echoics are usually one of the first language goals targeted.

Expressive Language: This describes our ability to use language, gestures and writing to express ourselves. 

Extinction Burst: A rapid escalation in the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behaviour once the reinforcement for this behaviour has been removed.  Usually, the pattern during extinction is that there is a small reduction in the behaviour, a big spike and then the behaviour disappears completely. There is something known as spontaneous recovery, which can happen after extinction is used.  The child will test the waters and re-engage in the challenging behaviour that has previously been extinguished. By sticking to the plan and not reinforcing the behaviour, spontaneous recovery is usually short lived. 

Extinction: When you intentionally stop reinforcing a behaviour with the goal of reducing that behaviour. For example, if you don’t answer the phone when someone calls, they will eventually stop calling you.  Often leads to an extinction burst.

Fine Motor Skills: These are the skills that require movement and coordination of the small muscles of the body, specifically the muscles of the hands.  Cutting, writing and pointing are all fine motor skills. 

Functional Analysis or FA: This is a highly specialized process that BCBAs use to determine the function of the behaviour targeted for intervention.  By manipulating reinforcement the BCBA will see if they can influence the behaviour. By controlling the reinforcement for a behaviour, you’re able to determine the function of the behaviour and can create function based replacement behaviours. One specific type of FA is called IISCA (Interview Informed Synthesized Contingency Analysis), it was created by Dr. Greg Hanley. 

Functional Behaviour Assessment or FBA: This is a process for hypothesizing the function of a behaviour that is being targeted for intervention. In an FBA the BCBA does some or all of the following: observes the behaviour, completes interview style questionnaires and takes data. 

Generalization: When your child is able to demonstrate a skill using novel materials, with novel people and in novel environments. All ABA skill acquisition programs should have generalization steps built into the program because generalization does not always happen automatically. 

Gross Motor Skills: These are the skills that require movement or coordination of the large muscles of the body, specifically the muscles of the arms, legs and trunk. Walking, running and sitting are all gross motor movements. 

Intervention: This the strategy that will be used by the team to change a behaviour or teach a skill. Intervention is another word for program. 

Intraverbal: A verbal operant meaning conversation.  When the speaker responds to another person’s language in a conversational way. For example, if someone asks you “What’s your favourite colour?” your response “Red” would be an intraverbal. 

Latency: In applied behaviour analysis, this is the time between when an instruction is given and the beginning of the behaviour.  

Maintenance: When a skill or behaviour is able to be demonstrated long after it was originally taught and with less reinforcement than was used during teaching.  Sometimes a skill will be ‘moved to maintenance’ this means that the child will be asked to demonstrate the skill on a regular basis to avoid losing it.  Often there is a maintenance schedule that the applied behaviour analysis team will use to practice the learned skills so that they are not forgotten. 

Mand: A verbal operant meaning request.  When the speaker uses a word to make their needs known.  For example, saying “apple” when you want to eat an apple. Mands can be requests for objects, people or attention.  Mands can also be requests for the removal of something you don’t like. 

Mastery: The requirement for something to be considered learned.  Mastery criteria are always set before the behaviour is taught.  Often in applied behaviour analysis programs mastery criteria is 80% correct (or above) over 3 consecutive days with different instructors and novel stimuli. 

Natural Environment Teaching (NET): A form of applied behaviour analysis where learning occurs naturally or incidentally in the child’s typical environment.  Examples of programs that are best run in the NET are tooth brushing or feeding programs run at a family table during meal times. 

Negative Reinforcement: When something is removed from the environment that makes a behaviour more likely to happen again in the future. In applied behaviour analysis, negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment.

Neutral Stimulus:  Something in our environment that does not affect our behaviour.  We have not associated that object or event with anything else. 

Positive Reinforcement:  When something is added to the environment that makes a behaviour more likely to happen again in the future. 

Program: The specific strategies that will be used to change a behaviour or teach a skills. Each skill should have it’s own program description. Program is another word for intervention. 

Prompt Hierarchy: These are the graduated steps that a therapist will use to methodically remove support for a child to be able to perform a skill independently. Having a prompt hierarchy in place is important in order to ensure that all team members are using the least intrusive prompt required. An example of a most to least prompt hierarchy is: full physical, partial physical, verbal, gestual, modeling, pointing, gaze and no prompt (independent). 

Prompting: These are the strategies that are used to help a child learn a new skill. Generally, BCBAs will put a prompt hierarchy in place to guide the therapists in how to support the child. 

Punisher: Anything that makes a behaviour less likely to happen again in the future. 

Punishment:  A procedure that is used to decrease the likelihood that a behaviour will happen again in the future.  Punishment weakens behaviour. Your child’s therapy team must gain your consent before implementing punishment procedures in their applied behaviour analysis programming.

Rate: This is how many times a behaviour is displayed within a specific time frame.  Rate is always described in relation to time. For example, 7 incidents per day or 2 incidents per minute. 

Ratio: This is the number of responses required before a reinforcer will be delivered. It is possible to have either a fixed ratio (for every 5 responses reinforcement will be delivered) or a variable ratio (on average reinforcement will be delivered every 5 responses – sometimes it is delivered after one response and other times it is delivered after 9 responses). 

Receptive Language: This describes our ability to understand the words that are spoken to us. 

Registered Behaviour Technician (RBT): This is a credential offered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.  An RBT is a person who practices applied behaviour analysis under the close and ongoing supervision of a BCBA. RBTs are not allowed to practice independently (without supervision) because they have not met the standards set by the BACB for that level of work. 

Reinforcement: A procedure that is used to increase the likelihood that a behaviour will happen again in the future.  Reinforcement strengthens behaviour. 

Reinforcer: Anything that makes a behaviour more likely to happen again.  

Response: An observable and measurable behaviour.  Often applied behaviour analysis folks talk about response classes, or groups of behaviour that fit into a category. 

S-Delta: A stimulus whose presence indicates that a behaviour will not be reinforced.  For example, an “out of order” sign on an elevator will decrease the likelihood that you’ll push the elevator call button. 

Satiation: When your motivation for something is really low because you’ve been exposed to it too much.  This happens when you use a reinforcer too frequently or in amounts that are too big. 

Schedules of Reinforcement: The frequency that reinforcement is delivered. There are fixed and variable schedules as well as ratio and interval schedules. Fixed Interval (FI) schedules provide reinforcement for the first example of the target behaviour after a predetermined amount of time has expired. Fixed Ratio (FR) schedules provide reinforcement after a specific number of correct responses (think of a token board). Variable Interval (VI) schedules provide reinforcement after an unpredictable amount of time has passed. Variable Ratio (VR) schedules provide reinforcement after an unpredictable number of responses have been given.

Scrolling: Rotating through a set of answers when you don’t know the specific answer. For example, if you showed your child an apple and asked “what’s this?” If your child was scrolling they would say “Orange, ball, tomato, apple”.  This happens if the prompting procedure is not applied correctly. Scrolling can happen with any of the verbal operants, not only tacting/labeling.

Self-Injurious Behaviour (SIB): Actions that the child does that cause injury to themself. Hitting oneself, biting oneself and headbanging are examples of self-injurious behaviour. 

Stims/Stimming: Self-stimulatory behaviour. These are some of the repetitive or stereotypic behaviours that a person with autism might engage in. For example, hand flapping, rocking and repeating movie scripts are all stims. Some people with autism report that they engage in stimming because they’re either under or over responsive to sensory stimuli and it helps to balance them. 

Tact: In applied behaviour analysis this means a label.  When the speaker names what they see or perceive in the environment. For example, smelling pie and saying “pie” or hearing a dog barking and saying “dog”. 

VB MAPP (Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program): This is a curriculum assessment that is based on Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. It was created by Dr. Mark Sundberg.  Similar to the ABLLS-r it tests whether the child has specific language skills. The sections or domains of the assessment are based on Skinner’s verbal Operants. The assessment is divided into 5 parts: Milestones Assessment, Barriers Assessment, Transition Assessment, Task Analysis & Supporting Skills and Placement & IEP Goals. 

Verbal Behaviour: A branch of applied behaviour analysis based on the work of B.F. Skinner.  Skinner identified verbal operants or different parts of our language, each serving a different purpose or function.  There are many verbal operants but the basic ones are: mands, tacts, echoics and intraverbals. 

If you’re embarking on your applied behaviour analysis adventure and would like to discuss anything with us, please contact us for a no-charge 30 minute consultation.

Behaviour Intervention Plans: The 8 essential elements

Read time: 2 minutes

Example of a behaviour intervention plan that addresses challenging behaviour.






There are many ways to intervene to address challenging behaviour.  In Applied Behaviour Analysis the Behaviour Intervention Plan (BIP) is used. Here are the essential parts of a behaviour intervention plan to look out for when designing one or if one is being implemented with your child.

Elements of a behaviour intervention plan

Operational Definition of Target Behaviour: 

This is the definition of the target behaviour.  It is used throughout the behaviour intervention plan. It is important that this definition is accurate and explicit so that anyone who reads the definition would be able to identify the behaviour. The operational definition should include descriptions that are measurable and observable. It is good practice to include a non-example of the behaviour. For example, if the target behaviour was crying, you would not track crying if the child was hurt. Everyone needs to be working from the same framework and that begins with a solid operational definition. 

Function of Behaviour:

It is important to identify or hypothesize the function of a behaviour before you attempt to change it.  Knowing the function will lead you to a function based replacement behaviour. Functional replacements are more effective because they meet the need that the original behaviour as serving. Read more about the functions of behaviour here.

Replacement Behaviour Definition:

Each target behaviour should have a replacement behaviour that will be taught and reinforced.  This behaviour also needs a proper operational definition to ensure that there is consistency across implementers and to ensure that each instance of the behaviour is reinforced. 

Antecedent Strategies:

These are the things in the environment that will be modified to avoid the target behaviour in the first place.  Some examples of antecedent strategies are to reduce distraction, provide scheduled or free access to reinforcers or proactively reducing demands. 

Skill Building Strategies:

In a behaviour intervention plan, these are the strategies that will be implemented to teach new skills.  These strategies can be tools like visual schedules, token boards or the specific steps that will be taught to the child to accomplish a new skill. 

Consequence Strategies:

These are the strategies that will be employed once the behaviour has happened.  These are important so that everyone on the team is aware of how to respond when the target behaviour happens. Consequence strategies are not exclusively negative, they are simply what happens after the target behaviour. Examples of positive consequences are receiving praise for completing an assignment on time, getting a high five for trying a new food or earning extra time on a device.  

Data Collection Procedures:

Data is an important part of any applied behaviour analysis intervention.  Data is taken to measure change, how quickly that change is happening and to identify when that change is not occurring. Treatment decisions like when to change targets, when to revise interventions or when a skill is mastered should all be made based on the data that has been collected. Data collection should be specific to the situation and able to be gathered with consistency and integrity.  Bad data doesn’t help anyone.  

Generalization and Maintenance Procedures:

Generalization and maintenance needs to be programmed from the outset of treatment in order for them to occur. It is very unlikely that a skill will be generalized without specific planning. Generalization is when a skill can be demonstrated in a number of settings or environments, with different materials and with different people. Maintenance occurs when a skill is reliably demonstrated with a level of reinforcement that is less than what was used to teach the skill. 

If you would like to discuss your child’s behaviour intervention plan please contact us for a no-charge consultation.

Functions of Behaviour: Luckily it’s always one of these 4

Info graphic listing the 4 functions of behaviour: attention, escape, access to tangibles and sensory

Read time: 3 minutes

When developing behaviour intervention plans, behaviour analysts investigate the environmental conditions that create opportunities for challenging behaviours to happen.  We look at the functions of behaviour.

In other words, we look at the antecedents (or what is happening before a behaviour) and the consequences (or what is happening after a behaviour) to determine how the behaviour is maintained.

Behaviour analytic researchers have shown that there are 4 main functions of behaviour that perpetuate every behaviour. Sometimes a behaviour will serve one function but more often it can serve many.  Functions of behaviours can also change over time. The 4 functions of behaviours are: access to tangibles, access to social attention, escape or avoidance of undesired situations and automatic reinforcement (sensory).  

The functions of behaviour don’t always equal their topographies

Sometimes it can be easy to confuse the function of a behaviour with it’s topography. Topography is the description of what the behaviour looks like not why it is occurring. For example, to say that someone is chewing is describing the topography of their behaviour not the function.

Once the functions of a behaviour have been discovered the behaviour analyst will develop a replacement behaviour that meets the same need, is easier and is 100% effective. Another important aspect of changing behaviour is to stop reinforcing the target behaviour.

If your child is engaging in an attention seeking behaviour, say calling out in class without raising their hand, the replacement behaviour could potentially be teaching the child to raise their hand to have the teacher call on them. In order for this replacement behaviour to take hold, the teacher has to be committed to always call on the child when they raise their hand and to ignore all instances of calling out. If the teacher continues to reinforce the calling out behaviour, there will be no reason for the child to stop.  

It’s important to remember that reinforcing doesn’t only mean being positive about something.  In applied behaviour analysis, when you reinforce something you’re simply making it more likely to happen again. If a child is engaging in a behaviour that is maintained by escape and you put them in a time out you are reinforcing their escape maintained behaviour, even though being in a time out is not fun.

If a child doesn’t like to eat their vegetables and swears at the dinner table and is sent to their room as a consequence the child’s swearing behaviour is being reinforced because they were allowed to escape or avoid eating their vegetables.  The child has learned that by swearing they will be sent away from the table and will not have to eat their vegetables.

Often the way to change behaviour is to do the opposite of the function while replacing the target behaviour with an alternative.  If the behaviour serves the function of escape or avoidance you would not allow the child to escape or avoid the situation. If the child is gaining attention from the behaviour you would want to limit attention (ignore the behaviour, not the child). If the behaviour allows the child to gain access to something tangible you would want to not allow access.

There are many ethical debates about whether it is okay to intervene in self-stimulatory behaviours (flapping, pacing, jumping etc). I believe that we should not stop someone from doing something simply because of how it looks to others.  Typically developing people engage in self-stimulatory behaviours (humming, playing with their hair, fidgeting) and no one is putting a behaviour interventions in place to stop them. If a sensory maintained behaviour is dangerous (self-injury) or disruptive then there needs to be intervention and a replacement behaviour should be established. 

 Click here to read about the elements of a behaviour intervention plan.

If you would like some help determining the functions of your child’s challenging behaviour contact Lindsey by phone at 1.877.797.0437 or by email.

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