ABA used in classroom with young students

The Complete Guide to Using Applied Behavior Analysis Effectively in the Classroom

Most people may have heard of applied behavior analysis being used to treat people with autism spectrum disorder often at home or in therapy centers… but ABA strategies for the classroom can also have hugely beneficial effects on students as well as teachers.

The goal of ABA is to change and improve socially significant behavior, improve communication skills, social skills, and learning skills. It’s backed by years of research, practice and empirical data on behavioral reinforcements. It takes nothing for granted when it comes to understanding behavior, seeking deep insights into how behavior is affected by stimuli and the environment, and how learning happens… Of course it’s perfect for classroom management!

While most teachers are not certified ABA therapists, being trained in the techniques and theories of behavior analysis can have amazingly positive benefits in any teaching environment. An ABA classroom can be less stressful, more controlled, and foster stronger relationships. When it comes down to it, ABA is an empirically backed method for promoting positive behavior. So, in a way, all ABA therapists are teachers, and all teachers can apply ABA methods to their teaching.

To use ABA therapy to its fullest potential, it’s important to bust the common myths about ABA and realize how effective it can be in a variety of different settings and for many types of children. ABA is a scientifically proven treatment with hundreds of approaches and many applications outside of just autism spectrum disorder.

For special needs students, an ABA education has been found to be beneficial for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, traumatic brain injuries, obsessive compulsive disorder, and speech and language impediments, as well as autism spectrum disorder. Using ABA in the classroom can be effective for any behavior-related disorder or disease.

But ABA isn’t just useful for special education. ABA can help anyone who would benefit from improving, managing, or reducing behaviors, which leaves no one out. General education teachers are often presented with students who exhibit challenging behaviors, such as difficulty transitioning, tantrums, impatience, inattentiveness, aggression, and more. A mainstreamed student who is fidgety in his seat and disrupts class to get attention can be helped by ABA just as a child with autism can.

Young girl raising hand in full classroomHow is ABA applied in the classroom? Some examples of applied behavior analysis in the classroom are when teachers take the time to learn how to determine the motivation and purpose of behavior, understand how to deliver reinforcement and consequences, and modify the classroom environment to promote appropriate behavior. Consistency is key to running an ABA-inspired classroom. By holding yourself and your students to the behavior plan, reinforcement stays strong. That being the case, if the plan doesn’t seem to be working, you need to be open to putting a new plan in place.

Clearly, not every behavior requires intervention and teachers should have realistic expectations about the outcome of these methods, but using ABA strategies in the classroom are well worth a try. Teachers who are persistent and consistent with behavior plans often see amazing results.

How does ABA work in the classroom? Teachers use tried and tested behavioral reinforcement strategies backed by scientific data designed to promote positive behavior and dissuade negative behavior. This creates an optimal learning environment for the individual student who may be exhibiting problem behaviors, and the entire class. Teachers who learn how to use ABA in the classroom can see real improvements not only in student behavior, but also in learning outcomes.

So, what is ABA style? ABA-style classroom management simply refers to using positive reinforcement and token economy systems where good behavior is rewarded (think gold stars!) to improve behavior, along with learning, social, and communication skills.

5 ABA Teaching Strategies

While the field of ABA contains countless approaches, there are five teaching strategies specific to ABA that are widely believed to work well in the classroom, for both improving behavior and learning. So, what are the five components of the ABA approach? The most effective ABA-specific strategies are:

  • Discrete trial teaching
  • Naturalistic teaching
  • Pivotal response treatment
  • Token economy
  • Contingent observation

Let’s get to it. Exactly what are teaching strategies in ABA?

Discrete Trial Teaching

With discrete trial teaching, teachers break down skills into smaller components, and then teach each individual sub-skill separately. This allows for complex concepts to be more easily absorbed without becoming overwhelming. The teacher and student are able to work through component tasks of a behavior or skill individually. Discrete trial teaching uses a cue-and-response structure, in which a child responds to a prompt and receives a consequence. These consequences could include rewards, breaks, or error corrections. After the trial, there is a short pause before the start of the next trial. This strategy could be good for students who are lacking in social skills.

The training steps of discrete trial teaching are:

  1. Prompt (or discriminative stimulus)
  2. Child response
  3. Consequence
  4. Inter-trial interval

Naturalistic Teaching

In naturalistic teaching, the child sets the pace for learning in their daily routines. Naturalistic teaching capitalizes on a child’s natural interests, needs, and abilities. These strategies are incorporated in the moment throughout the school day instead of using a dedicated time period for treatment. Teachers using this strategy offer feedback and coaching for target behaviors as they happen so that they can minimize interference with learning.

A type of naturalistic teaching specifically used to improve communication skills is incidental teaching. In incidental teaching, the environment is set up to encourage students to use communication skills to ask for what they want. Similarly, the natural language paradigm method involves arranging an environment to increase the chances for the student to use language.

Pivotal Response Treatment

Pivotal response treatment is technically a naturalistic teaching approach as well but stands out as a method that targets pivotal areas of a child’s development, instead of focusing on individual behaviors. These areas include motivation, responsivity, social initiations, and self-management. By working on these broad pivotal areas, teachers often also see results in other communicative, social, and behavioral areas. The treatment is used to decrease disruptive behaviors, teach language, and improve communication, social, and academic skills. The PRT strategy includes child choice, task variation, and rewarding attempts with direct and natural reinforcers and is largely directed by the student.

Token Economy

Little girls hand covered in star stickersA token economy approach is all about reinforcers. It’s a system of reinforcement that uses symbols or tokens than can be exchanged for other reinforcers, much like how money works. Common tokens are not money, however. Teachers can use stickers, points, or small prizes like erasers. Students know that certain behaviors will earn them tokens (and others won’t), so they’re motivated to perform positive behaviors and discouraged from negative ones. These reinforced behaviors in the classroom could include paying attention, turning in assignments on time, or cleaning up.

Contingent Observation

Essentially, contingent observation is a mild form of timeout. This is used for young children often in preschool and day-care environments. The goal is to teach the child to play or work in a group without disrupting other children. When a child behaves inappropriately in the social group, they’re taught a more appropriate behavior and made to sit a few feet outside of the group where they can still see what’s going on (or the reinforcing activity) for a brief time before they’re invited to return. Contingent observation is considered effective in reducing behaviors such as aggression and disruption.

All of these ABA strategies are firmly based in scientific research and empirically proven in the field. Teachers who are trained in ABA thinking and methods of teaching can change their classrooms for the better, improve their teaching abilities, and help their students in meaningful ways, whether they teach special education or mainstream classes.