What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the practice of applying the psychological principles of learning theory in a systematic way to alter behavior in humans or animals. The practice is used extensively in education, healthcare, animal training, and business management. It is particularly prominent in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for which it is one of the only scientifically valid therapies available.

If you were ever put in a time-out by your parents, or have put one of your own children into time-out as a punishment for misbehavior, you have the science of applied behavior analysis to thank for the technique.

Doctor Montrose Wolf, one of the founders of the field, came up with the time-out in the 1960’s in the process of developing effective treatment methods for an autistic 3-year-old under his care. Understanding that the tantrums thrown by the child were being reinforced by the adult attention they drew, Wolf created the time-out to deprive the child of the attention but still provide an effective response to the behavior.

In doing so, he was making use of a theory of behavior modification first developed by psychologist B.F. Skinner 20 years earlier called operant conditioning. The theory rested on a process of observation and consequence that has since become known as the ABC’s of applied behavior analysis:

  • Antecedent – The prompt, or initial situation, leading to a behavior—in this case, the 3-year-old’s desire for adult attention.
  • Behavior – The action or behavior in response to the antecedent—throwing a tantrum and acting out.
  • Consequence – The reinforcement mechanism associated with the behavior—adult attention, even if ostensibly negative, desired by the child.

Wolf and his compatriots realized that by making careful observations of the environment (the antecedents) and understanding the relationship to the behaviors exhibited, they could systematically alter the consequences to either reinforce behaviors deemed positive, or discourage those deemed negative.

This systematic manipulation is the essence of applied behavior analysis and has led to applications in diverse fields such as:

  • Autism treatment centers
  • Hospitals
  • Group care facilities
  • Factories and offices
  • Schools
  • Zoos and pet training centers

ABAs often work with other professionals in the course of their jobs. They are members of healthcare provider teams, educators, and business management teams. They might consult with doctors, therapists, and psychologists on certain cases. They work in hospitals, private clinics, schools, and in the homes of private patients.

The Techniques of Applied Behavior Analysis

Wherever they are applied, the various techniques used by applied behavior analysts remain consistently oriented toward observing and manipulating the ABCs.

The systematic observation of patients is one of the cornerstones of these techniques. Known as the Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA), most ABAs will begin their treatment by making consistent, careful observations of the patient in their natural environment. The FBA can also be informed by observations made by other caregivers and from reports or interviews with the patient.

The behavior analyst will then form a hypothesis of the ABCs in play with that particular patient, and build a Behavior Intervention Plan, or BIP, that is designed to make systematic, but gradual, changes in the consequences of behaviors that are designed to encourage socially positive behaviors and discourage socially detrimental behaviors.

The particular tools used to implement the consequences might include:

  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT) – Involves breaking down complex behaviors into a number of elements, which are separately and sequentially reinforced to build up into the desired behavior.
  • Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) – Rather than targeting specific behaviors, PRT involves a holistic examination of motivations and responsiveness in the patient.
  • Natural Environment Training (NET) – NET uses reward systems already established in the patient’s life and pairs them with desired behaviors to create a naturalistic pattern of behavior response.
  • Token Economies – Token economies create a systematic method of offering placeholders for rewards that are offered in exchange for positive behaviors—gold stars given in class for homework turned in on time, for example. An eventual reward for the tokens helps create a pattern of reinforced behaviors, particularly in group environments.

Creativity is a valuable trait for an applied behavior analyst. Working in natural environments, they are constantly assessing methods to modify behaviors, and experimenting with new techniques all the time. The field is constantly evolving.

The Practice of Applied Behavior Analysis in the World Today

Because ABA has broad applications in almost any situation where a particular behavior or response needs to be taught or encouraged, behavior analysts find employment in a diverse array of fields well outside the typical range of psychological practice.

Animal Behavior Analysis

One of the earliest applications of operant conditioning was in animal training. Some of Skinner’s original investigation into the technique revolved around teaching pigeons to pilot guided missiles during World War II (the pigeon missiles were never deployed in combat!).

Today, the techniques applied broadly in zoos and by many pet trainers to deliver consistent, positive reinforcement to improve animal behavior or to train them in specific behaviors for their own safety or that of their handlers. For example, in one recent case, behavior analysts used conditioning techniques to train horses how to enter horse trailers in a way that reduced the likelihood of injuries.

Education

ABA theories and techniques are behind many modern educational methods used in classrooms around the country. The Good Behavior Game, for example, a popular classroom management tool, was also invented by Dr. Wolf. The practice of giving out gold stars, offering consistent repetitive reinforcement in the form of regular quizzes, and having students raise their hands before speaking all owe their existence and effectiveness to applied behavior analysis.

But ABA is particularly prominent in the world of special education. Thirty percent of applied behavior analysts are employed in schools, usually working with developmentally disabled children. ABAs are responsible for conducting FBAs and using their findings to work with other healthcare professionals and educators to develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special needs kids to ensure they receive the assistance they need to participate as much as possible in the same classes as their general education peers.

As one of the few treatment techniques found to be scientifically proven as effective for treating autism spectrum disorder, ABA practice in schools has surged along with the increase in ASD diagnoses in the United States.

Healthcare

ABAs work with patients with a wide variety of diagnoses to either directly treat behavioral issues or to assist other healthcare professionals in providing treatment that may be impeded by undesirable behaviors, or that could be enhanced by encouraging new behaviors.

For example, ABAs often work with speech-language therapists to determine how best to teach language to developmentally delayed children. In pre-verbal kids, it can be problematic to determine whether speech delays are the result of physical, mental, or behavioral problems. Studies have shown that motivation can be a problem in cases of traumatic brain injury when it comes to language acquisition.

Using FBAs and careful implementation of BIPs, ABAs can establish communication and encourage language skill development in those cases. They use the same techniques on other patients with issues as diverse as:

  • Depression
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Fears and phobias
  • Anger management issues
  • Anxiety disorders

Business

A specialized application of applied behavior analysis called organizational behavior management (OBM) has evolved to help apply ABA systems and techniques to groups rather than just individuals.

This approach has had applications in industrial safety systems, such as the implementation of a token economy system at two dangerous open-pit mining operations in Arizona and Wyoming which resulted in a dramatic decrease in time-loss work incidents. While the decrease in injuries was surely popular with the workers, management had something to cheer about, too: the reduction in incidents through the token economy system was also associated with an almost 90 percent decrease in safety costs.

OBM is also being increasingly incorporated into popular management practices in a wide variety of fields. For example, one junior high football coach found success using behavioral analysis techniques to teach blocking skills, resulting in a 90 percent improvement in safely and properly executed blocks.

Preparing for a Career in Applied Behavior Analysis

Almost all positions for applied behavior analysts require a minimum of a master’s degree. This is usually in a related field, such as psychology, education, or in applied behavior analysis, but depending on the particular sub-field of practice it might also be in business or animal science.

Undergraduate degrees in psychology or education lay a solid groundwork for any of these advanced degree programs.

Additionally, volunteering for organizations who used applied behavior analysis can provide valuable experience in the field and also offer a preview of the type of working environments available.

Many positions for ABAs require a particular certification. In healthcare and education, this is usually the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) certificate offered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, a national non-profit founded in 1998 to provide standards of practice and ethics for the field.

For ABAs hoping to work with animals, the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) certificate, offered by the Animal Behavior Society, is another option. Many BCBA®s work in animal training as well.

Approximately half of all states require a license or certification for ABAs to practice, with more introducing licensing requirements all the time.

Further Reading in Applied Behavior Analysis

Behavior Analyst Certification Board – A national certification and standards body governing ABA practices.

Association of Behavior Analysts International – An international associations that performs ABA advocacy and has many resources for job-seekers and active behavior analysts.

Association of Professional Behavior Analysts – A nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for and advancing the practice of behavior analysis.

The OBM Network – Founded in 1982, this organization serves as a resource for both practitioners and students interested in entering the field.

The ABA Toolbox – A resource site outlining many common ABA treatment techniques.

The Autism Society of America – A national non-profit that exists to improve the lives of all autism sufferers through advocacy, lobbying, and research efforts.

Applied Animal Behavior Science – The official journal of the International Society for Applied Ethology.

Animal Behavior Society – A non-profit dedicated to promoting and encouraging the study of animal behavior.

Volunteer Match – An organization that lists volunteer opportunities in a variety of fields, including private and community services agencies which use applied behavior analysis.

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