Applied behavior analysis in educational services is most commonly used in special education classes to treat behavioral problems among special needs students. Many of the theories and precepts common in education in general today have also grown out of the science of behavior analysis, however.
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The story of applied behavior analysis in education in the United States is inextricably tied to the significant increase in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses among school-age children that emerged in the mid-1990s. Suddenly, classrooms were overwhelmed with special needs children who exhibited sometimes severe behavioral issues, impacting both their own education and the schooling of others.
At around the same time, in 1999, the Surgeon General released a report that confirmed that ABA was one of a few scientifically valid treatments for autism.
Today, 1 in 68 American children are diagnosed with ASD. The Federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), legislation that was first passed in 1975, guarantees each of them the right to an individually appropriate education. While IDEA does not specifically mandate ABA services, both parents and school administrators are increasingly concluding that such treatments offer the best outcomes for children.
But not all ABAs working in education deal exclusively with special education, and not all of those in special education work only with autistic patients. ABA techniques are used with special education students of all stripes, and often in general education classrooms as well. Behavior analysis can be a powerful teaching tool regardless of the material or students.
The field is among the largest of all ABA practice domains. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 to provide certification services and maintain professional standards for behavior analysts, found in a 2015 study that almost 30 percent of all jobs in the industry were in education services.
Applied Behavior Analysis in Special Education: FBA, IEP and BIP
Although autism is a major part of the special education landscape in America today, it’s not the only issue ABAs work with in education. They also treat students with:
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Speech and language impediments
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Obsessive/Compulsive Disorders (OCD)
- Any behavior-related disorder or disease
IDEA dominates the practice of applied behavior analysis in special education.
The legislation requires that school districts provide free and appropriate services to deliver the same level of education to disabled students as to their general education peers. Over the years, certain mandatory concepts and practices have been introduced to standardize this process. ABAs working in the education system become intimately familiar with the framework put in place by IDEA.
One of the central tenets of this framework is the Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP is a student-specific plan for addressing their issues to allow them to receive appropriate education services. The plan must follow the precept of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which requires that, as much as possible, the student should be allowed to study and learn in the same class environment as their general education peers.
ABAs are crucial in many of the steps in this process, including deciding whether or not a particular student qualifies for an IEP. IDEA requires an appropriate evaluation of potential special education students, a requirement that ABAs often help fulfill by conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) of the student.
The FBA is the process of gathering and analyzing information about a student’s behavior and the environmental cues that influence it. The ABA conducts an FBA by making careful in-person observations, reviewing records and reports from teachers and parents, and by interviewing the student directly. A behavioral record may be established to conduct consistent observations over time, and the ABA will usually coordinate with teachers or administrators to ensure that the data for this record is collected routinely and accurately.
The ABA’s role continues in the development of the IEP. Working in coordination with other medical and psychology professionals, parents, teachers, and administrators, the ABA will help shape the IEP and, when necessary, construct a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) as part of it.
A BIP provides a blueprint for all educators and caregivers responsible for the student to follow. The BIP:
- Sets goals and objectives for the student.
- Describes the techniques for direction intervention in problem behaviors.
- Identifies appropriate responses to the exhibition of problem behaviors.
- Lists replacement behaviors to encourage.
For example, for a student with ADHD, the BIP might call for a teacher to meet the student when he gets off the bus to escort him to class, to reduce the potential for distractions on the way. In class, it might call for establishing a consistent quiet place for the student to be placed when he becomes overstimulated in the ordinary class environment. It could specify positive language to use to reinforce appropriate behaviors, and outline disciplines to make use of to reduce inappropriate behavior.
The ABA has access to a wide range of techniques to apply in developing a BIP for use in an IEP, including:
- 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.
Throughout the student’s career, the behavior analyst will remain responsible both for performing direct one-on-one therapy as necessary, training and advising other caregivers and educators on applying ABA techniques, and continuing to evaluate the student’s progress and making any necessary changes in the IEP.
ABA techniques are also applied to the overall management of special education classrooms. Special education teachers use a number of ABA solutions to manage classes of special needs students, including:
- Pairing – Associating positive experience for the students with the teachers and support staff, to encourage students to cooperate and behave for staff. For example, showing individual interest in the student, or ensuring that rewards come from those staff, create positive associations.
- Data gathering – Similar to conducting an FBA, special educators often conduct regular, objective assessments of the class environment to provide a basis for future decision making.
- Prompts – Certain cues may be introduced into the class environment designed to put all the students on the same page and orient them to appropriate behaviors at appropriate times. A consistent verbal instruction at test times or display of a particular image to introduce a particular subject helps condition students.
Applied Behavior Analysis in General Education
Although most behavior analysts in the education system work in special education settings, the field of applied behavior analysis has had considerable influence on the general education system as well and continues to find applications in regular classrooms.
Overall classroom management may be the topic where most directed behavior analysis tools are used in general education. Teachers have learned how to apply scientific principles of positive reinforcement to encourage harmony and appropriate behavior in classrooms through such tools as:
Many modern educational techniques have roots in behavior analysis, however. Many common premises in education apply the principles of ABA, such as:
- Regular weekly quizzes – Use consistency and fixed interval reinforcement to prompt knowledge retention.
- Offering gold stars – Creates a reward system for appropriate behaviors or educational achievements.
- Requiring students to raise hands before speaking – A type of shaping that inculcates consistent and respectful behavior in the class environment.
Preparing for an ABA Career in Education
In some sense, almost all educators are taught and use the techniques of applied behavior analysis in their careers. Any advanced degree in education or special education will include a significant component of ABA training.
Anyone considering a dedicated career as an applied behavior analyst in education will probably prepare with even more specialized courses, however. Many ABA positions in education require a Board Certified Behavior Analysis (BCBA®) or Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA®) certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Those certifications both require degrees in behavior analysis, education, or psychology. The BCBA® requires a master’s degree, while the BCaBA® only requires a bachelor’s degree.
BCaBA®s can expect to find classroom assistant or similar support positions in the education system, while master’s-educated BCBA®s will fill ABA positions with more responsibility and independence.
In many states, applied behavior analysts now require a license to practice. However, in some of those states, such as New York, exemptions exist to allow ABAs employed by school systems to practice with students without obtaining a license. Nonetheless, advanced degrees in special education with a focus in applied behavior analysis are usually required or preferred for such positions.
Schools are always looking for volunteers to help out in both special and general education classes. This can be an excellent way to prepare for a career in ABA in education, allowing you to accumulate immediate and direct experience applying behavioral analysis techniques under the supervision of educational professionals. Citizen Schools is one central location to look for volunteer opportunities in public schools; Volunteer Match is another.
Additional Resources for Information on Applied Behavior Analysis in Educational Services
Citizen Schools – A career and volunteer opportunity-matching site that specializes in school and education system placements.
Volunteer Match – An organization that lists volunteer opportunities in a variety of fields, including education.
National Association of Special Education Teachers – A national nonprofit promoting the profession of special education teachers and providing a forum for conversation and dissemination of best practices, including ABA techniques.
Association for Behavior Analysts International, Autism Special Interest Group – A group dedicated to dealing with ASD in multiple environments, including in the education system.
Iep4u.com – A resource for developing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for special needs students.