Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)
What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?
Who is on an ABA Team?
- Clinical Supervisor (a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst or a psychologist)
- Supervising Therapist (depending on the size of your team)
- Registered Behaviour Technicians/Instructor Therapists
It is important for all therapists working with a client to be in contact to align practices and goals. Consider including S-LP, OT and teachers to the ABA team for meetings and troubleshooting.
What does ABA Therapy Look Like?
There are a number of different approaches that might be utilized when doing ABA therapy. Some examples are:
- Discrete Trial Teaching/Training
- Each step of a skill is isolated and taught in a series of trials.
- Situations are contrived to maximize the opportunities for specific targets to be addressed.
- Natural Environment Teaching
- Teaching takes place in the natural environment (in the kitchen, on the playground etc).
- Fosters generalization.
- Verbal Behaviour Intervention
- Focuses on teaching effective communication skills
- Based on Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behaviour
How the intervention looks will depend on the goals of the program. In discrete trial training programs, the child and therapist will likely be sitting at a desk or table. While in a natural environment teaching session the child and therapist might be at the park.
How does ABA therapy work?
ABA therapy is based on the sciences of learning and behaviour. Specific ‘laws’ of behaviour have been identified through scientific research that allow Behaviour Analysts to predict how a person will behave. Behaviour Analysts use this knowledge to facilitate learning.
In behavioural terms, reinforcement is anything that will make a behaviour more likely to occur again in the future. Reinforcement can be accomplished by adding something to the environment (positive reinforcement) or by removing something from the environment (negative reinforcement).
* People sometimes confuse negative reinforcement with punishment but they are two separate behavioural principles.
Some examples of positive and negative reinforcers are:
- Getting a high five after finishing a difficult math problem
- Having an ice cream after eating all the veggies on your plate
- Getting an email with praise after making a big presentation at work
- Drying wet hands (the water is removed from your hands and you’re likely to dry them again when they get wet in the future)
- A loud alarm turns off after you buckle your seat belt (the alarm is annoying and you are likely to buckle up again in the future)
- Removing an undesired food item from a child’s plate when they cry (the child is likely to cry again at the next presentation of that food item)
In ABA therapy, a punishment is anything that makes a behaviour less likely to occur. Similar to reinforcement, there is positive punishment (adding something undesirable to the environment) and negative punishment (removing something desirable from the environment). While punishment is effective in behaviour change, much research has shown that reinforcement is longer lasting and more effective in changing behaviour.
Watch this clip from the Big Bang Theory which describes the difference between reinforcement and punishment.
Shaping a behaviour occurs when we reinforce successive approximations of a behaviour. In order to be able to change behaviour opportunities for reinforcement have to be present. In shaping, you are making it more likely that an opportunity will present itself.
For example: Your minimally verbal child has recently begun to say an /m/ sound when they want milk. If you waited until they said the entire word ‘milk’ you would not have the opportunity to reinforce them. By shaping their response (and reinforcing each time they say ‘mmmm’) you are creating many occasions for reinforcement and learning.
Chaining occurs when you string shorter behaviours together to form a longer continuous behaviour. There are 3 types of chains: forward, backward and total task.
The first step when chaining a skill is to do a task analysis. A task analysis is a procedure used to break down a complex task into it’s smaller parts.
For example: A Task Analysis for Making the Bed:
- Gather clean linens.
- Remove dirty linens from bed and pillows.
- Put clean pillow cases onto pillows and put aside.
- Put fitted sheet onto mattress.
- Put flat sheet on top of fitted sheet, on mattress. Pull up to align with top of the bed.
- Put blanket on top of flat sheet. Pull up to align with top of the bed.
- Place pillows on bed.
- Put dirty linens in the laundry.
Forward Chains: you teach the first step in the chain to independence before moving onto the second step. You would prompt the rest of the chain.
Backward Chains: you prompt all of the steps until the last step, which is the target. You teach the last step to independence before moving the target to be the second last step.
Whole Chains: you teach each step of the behaviour chain at once. This type of chaining procedure is effective when the child has a number of the skills required but is not yet completely independent.
Types of ABA Interventions
There are 3 main types of interventions in ABA Therapy:
Antecedent Strategies (Prevention)
By changing the environment, we can avoid behaviours from happening altogether.
For example: You know that you always get hungry and distracted at 3pm, resulting in overeating at dinner time. You might prepare a snack to eat at 2:45 to avoid these behaviours. By changing the environment you have reduced the likelihood that the behaviour will occur.
Consequence Strategies (Intervention)
These strategies lay out how people will react when the targeted behaviour occurs. Having a formal intervention plan will create consistency among staff or family members and will help change to happen quickly. Having a formal intervention plan also removes any ambiguity about when to reinforce behaviour.
For example: You want to address your child’s pencil throwing behaviour during table work. After some discussion, you and the behaviour analyst hypothesize that your child is throwing to escape an undesired task demand. Together, you agree that when your child throws his pencil during table work you will respond by giving him another pencil. You will redirect him to continue his work and he will not be allowed to escape the task demand. You will also know when to reinforce his non-throwing behaviours.
Skill Building (Intervention)
These protocols are developed to teach new skills or to make existing skills more complex.
For example: You want to teach your son to do the laundry. You would create a task analysis of doing laundry and decide if you wanted to use forward, backward or whole chaining. You would assess whether your son has the prerequisite skills to be successful before beginning the laundry instruction.
Data collection is an integral part of every ABA program. There are many kinds of data that might be tracked:
- Frequency: how often a behaviour occurs
- Duration: how long a behaviour lasts
- Latency: how long it takes to start a behaviour
- Rate: how many times something happens within a predetermined time frame
- Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence: what are the contingencies that are maintaining a behaviour
Data is used to make decisions in ABA therapy. Each ABA program will have a specific data collection procedure with stated mastery criteria. Behaviour analysts take data to track success but also to be alerted when a program is not effective.
11 Essential Practice Elements of ABA
As stated by the Behaviour Analysis Certification Board (page 11) the following are 11 essential practices that should be present in every ABA program.
- Comprehensive assessment
- Focus on current relevance and future relevance of behaviour targets
- Isolating small units of behaviour to change to build towards substantial behaviour change
- Analysis of data specific to behaviour targets
- Purposeful intervention to manage the social and learning environment to maximize learning and minimize challenging behaviours
- Use of function based interventions
- Use of treatment plans that are individualized, specific and based in behaviour analytic theory
- Consistent application of treatment protocols across time and implementers
- Frequent re-assessment, evaluation and adjustment of treatment plan
- Direct support, modeling and training for family members and other team members
- Supervision by a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst