Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the practice of applying the psychological principles of learning theory in a systematic way to modify behavior. The practice is used most extensively in special education and the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but also in healthcare, animal training, and even business. ABA is widely recognized as the only scientifically valid therapy available for treating behavioral issues associated with ASD.
If you were ever put in a time-out by your parents or have put one of your children into time-out as a punishment for misbehavior, you have the science of applied behavior analysis to thank for the technique. Yet many don’t realize the role that applied behavioral analysis plays in their lives, largely behind the scenes. As the term has gained more mainstream traction, many are left wondering—what is ABA, how is it practiced, and who developed applied behavior analysis?
Doctor Montrose Wolf, one of the founders of the field, came up with the time-out in the 1960s in the process of developing effective treatment methods for an autistic 3-year-old under his care. Understanding that the child’s tantrums were being reinforced by the fact that this behavior was drawing attention, 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 ABCs 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 positive behaviors or discourage negative ones. This systematic manipulation is the essence of applied behavioral analysis therapy.
What is the Process Behind Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy?
A significant and sometimes overlooked contributor to the effectiveness of applied behavior analysis is the process itself. By rigorously pursuing a consistent, observable course of treatment, ABAs are able to logically and scientifically come to a conclusive judgment on the efficacy of any particular technique or treatment, and apply it systematically to help their patients.
This emphasis on scientific observation and experimentation has existed since the earliest days of behavior therapy. B.F. Skinner, one of the earliest proponents of radical behaviorism, insisted that behaviors were attributable to environmental factors and motivations. Skinner put his theories to the test using systematic experiments, such as those conducted using a Skinner Box.
To analyze and alter problematic behaviors, or to encourage beneficial ones, the behavior analyst has to correctly identify each of the ABCs and successfully interpret how they are related to one another. In the simplest explanations found in textbooks, the ABCs of ABA go something like this:
- A: A student with ADHD feels ignored in their class in school.
- B: The student randomly speaks out in class.
- C: The teacher admonishes the student, providing the attention that they were looking for.
In the real world, it can be more challenging to uncover the factors contributing to such behaviors:
- A: A student with no history of behavioral issues has recently had a younger sibling born into their family. At home, the child feels ignored and displaced.
- B: The student randomly speaks out in class.
- C: The teacher admonishes the student. Eventually, the parents will be contacted, who will talk with the student about the outbursts, providing the attention they were looking for.
Drawing on training and experience, the ABA must not only spot all of these factors, but correctly interpret them as being related, in order to figure out where to begin modifying them to alter the behavior.
Today, these steps are broken down into an informal loop:
- Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)
- Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) / Individual Education Plan (IEP)
- Ongoing Assessment
The Functional Behavior Assessment Establishes the Environment and Behaviors
Although different branches of behavior analysis may use slightly different terminology for this step, every behavior analyst begins a case by conducting an FBA – functional behavior assessment.
Much of the FBA is likely to be conducted in person and by direct observation and interview of the patient. The ABA may choose to begin by simply observing the patient during an average day, quietly noting important factors of the environment and how the patient reacts to them. Interactions with their ordinary caregivers and other people they encounter during the day will be monitored. In order to successfully intervene in problem behaviors, the ABA understands that the patient will have to improve in their natural environment, not just in the controlled environment of an exam room or clinic.
By directly interacting with the patient, the ABA can test some of the theories they have developed during other observation or from caregiver reports. The ABA might intentionally say something that has, in the past, been a trigger for aggression or acting out, simply to gauge the patient’s response. Or they might assess how the patient feels about these triggers, asking them to provide the reasoning behind their own behavior.
But observation and interaction are not the only ways to gather information. The ABA will probably interview teachers, parents, or other people the patient interacts with regularly.
They may also review medical records and behavioral incident reports.
If the patient has already been under care, the ABA will discuss the case with anyone else who has treated them, and review notes and progress from previous BIPs (behavior intervention plans) or IEPs (individualized education programs).
The FBA will result in a list of problematic behaviors that have been carefully observed and defined by the ABA. These lead to the development of the Behavior Intervention Plan.
The Behavior Intervention Plan Lays Out Strategies for Modifying Behavior
The BIP is the master plan formulated by the behavior analyst for altering the environment or consequences.
In schools, according to definitions established by the Federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), a BIP is either accompanied with or supplanted by a document called an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. The IEP will typically cover topics and activities beyond just behavior, but the ABA working on the case will establish the behavior modification aspects of the plan in coordination with other education and healthcare professionals working on the case.
The BIP or IEP establishes the overall strategy and the specific tactics to be used in altering the patient’s behavior.
BIPs are often more formal than FBAs. They will be typed up on a form that lists the problematic behaviors drawn from the FBA together with a list of objectives that the ABA has established for the patient. The objectives will typically be related to the behaviors but are often stair-stepped toward addressing the problem, rather than simply eliminating it. Complex behavioral issues might be solved piece by piece; for instance, a student that frequently speaks out of turn in class might be given a goal of reducing these instances from ten or twelve times a week, down to four or five.
The BIP will also have preventative strategies designed to help accomplish the objectives. In the disruptive student example, for instance, the ABA might have determined that part of the cause of the outbursts is that the student doesn’t feel heard. The BIP might call for the teacher to have structured sessions each day with the student where they can give their feedback. If the student successfully restricts themselves to speaking during these appropriate moments for two weeks, they might be rewarded with their choice of a game to play during free time.
Alternative actions are also outlined, providing ways to encourage the patient to channel their impulses. For instance, if the disruptive student forgets and has an outburst, the teacher might be instructed to calmly remind them to raise their hand instead.
By clearly outlining actual steps to take and behavior thresholds to monitor, the BIP assists both the patient and those they interact with in establishing a functional pattern for addressing issues.
Ongoing Behavioral Assessment Continues Through the Treatment Process
In a sense, the FBA segment of the process never really ends. Observation and assessment of the patient is ongoing and leads to changes in the BIP. Each adjustment in treatment yields a positive, negative, or neutral result in behavior. These continuing observations lead to a confirmation or reassessment of the ABA’s theories of patient behavior and may result in new techniques or reveal problems that had been buried by the initial issues.
In fact, in complex cases, the FBA/BIP may be structured as a sort of experiment, designed to isolate the actual cause of the behavior in the first iteration. Only after a period of continuing observation of the outcomes will the ABA establish a definitive therapeutic approach.
The level of direct involvement with the ABA will depend on the patient and course of treatment. Some ABAs will primarily work directly with the patient, implementing therapy plans in a clinical environment. Otherwise, they act as more of a resource for parents and caregivers, supervising or advising the hands-on aspects of the therapy. These ABAs might check in only periodically for reviews, a sort of mini-FBA based on reporting and brief observations.
This process will continue for as long as the patient is under care. In the best cases, the interaction will tail off as the behavior or learning improves. This is called “extinction” when it results in the disappearance of problem behavior, or “acquisition” when new skills and behaviors are successfully taught.
The cycle of observation, analysis, and reinforcement is much of what makes applied behavior analysis effective, and is common to every domain and treatment that uses it, even when the particular steps or techniques vary.
How Does Applied Behavior Analysis Work?
Wherever they are applied, the various techniques in applied behavioral analysis therapy remain consistently oriented toward observing and manipulating the ABCs (antecedent, behavior, and consequence).
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 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 tools used to implement the consequences might include:
- Discrete Trial Training (DTT): In discrete trial training, an ABA breaks 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, pivotal response treatmentinvolves a holistic examination of motivations and responsiveness in the patient.
- Natural Environment Training (NET): Natural environment training 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
What is ABA therapy’s role in the real world? And what does an applied behavior analyst do day to day? 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!).
Since then, animal behavior specialists have become widely recognized for the services they provide in feedlots and other agricultural settings. 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.
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.
Applied behavioral analysis in special education is particularly prominent. 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.
BCBAs in a hospital setting 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:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Fears and phobias
- Anger management issues
- Anxiety disorders
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.
What Can You Do with an Applied Behavior Analysis Degree?
Careers in applied behavioral analysis range from corporate organizational management to psychological treatment. The most prevalent career is that of a clinical behavioral analyst working with patients that suffer from behavioral disorders, like OCD, ASD, or ADHD, that deeply affect their everyday lives. As mentioned above, there are opportunities for therapists within medical offices, counseling practices, schools, and group care facilities.
Similarly, you could become a behavior analyst consultant instead, which requires the same skills and expertise but offers a bit more flexibility to tailor your career to your own interests or needs. Instead of working full time in one place or with one type of patient, a consultancy allows you to work in several different settings and with patients of all kinds, offering the opportunity to develop additional specializations throughout your career.
There are several other jobs related to applied behavior analysis you can step into with your ABA degree, some of which require additional certifications or degrees:
- Special education teacher or assistant
- Social worker
- Life or wellness coach
- School counselor or psychologist
- Animal training
Applied Behavior Analysis Salary
What is ABA therapy’s place in the job market, and how does that translate into pay? The field of applied behavioral analysis has enjoyed an exponentially expanding job market over the last decade. The average applied behavioral analysis salary has risen more than 1,900% due in no small part to the burgeoning understanding and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and other social and behavioral disorders. As such, ABA therapists are in high demand.
According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a behavioral analyst earns an average annual salary of $102,900. Entry-level analysts can expect an average salary of $73,910, while the top earners with 10 or more years of experience pulled in an average of $133,200 per year. Additional certifications and skill sets can also affect these numbers; for example, having expertise in program management results in a 10% higher pay rate.
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 behavioral analysis, but depending on the 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 that use applied behavior analysis therapy can provide valuable experience in the field and 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.
To get started on your career in applied behavioral analysis, start researching graduate programs in your area that offer the qualifying coursework you need to pass your BCBA exam, preferably in a format that works for you, whether that is on campus or online.
What Is ABA Therapy?
At its core, applied behavioral analysis therapy is used to improve or maintain the skills and actions necessary for everyday life. These include communication skills, social interactions, and learning techniques. For example, you could use applied behavioral analysis to teach motor skills, like tying shoes or using a fork. ABA therapy is also used to help improve social skills like appropriate interactions with peers, taking turns, following rules, and understanding and following social cues.
Because the techniques behind applied behavioral analysis are universally applicable to several communication and social behaviors, applied behavioral analysis therapy can be used for everything from treating psychological disorders, like OCD and ADHD, to animal training. As mentioned, it is often a first-line therapy to help patients on the autism spectrum cope with the world around them and learn appropriate skills and self-management behaviors to socialize with others.
ABA therapy has applications in diverse fields such as:
- Autism treatment centers
- Group care facilities
- Factories and offices
- Zoos and pet training centers
ABA therapists 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.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Psychologists, All Other reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.