What is ABA?
What is ABA? Let us first consider what it is not. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is not only a therapy for children with autism. It is also not only dog training. It is not an intervention that, when used in schools, is only designed to reduce a student's problem behavior. ABA is the science of behavior and learning applied to problems of social significance.
Behavior therapy for children with autism and other developmental delays is a well-known, successful application of ABA. However, a common application of a science is not the science itself. ABA is well-known for the treatment of autism, owing in part to all states now mandating that insurance companies cover the costs of ABA-based treatment for autism. What makes ABA effective? Are the principles of behavior and learning applied to other people and other animals? That leads us to the next point about what ABA is not.
ABA is not dog training. When a professional dog trainer or canine behavior consultant trains dogs and trains their owners to manage their dogs' environment and behavior, that is another successful application of the science of behavior. ABA is not its particular applications. It is a natural science based on behavioral principles that are applicable in a variety of highly diverse contexts. A professional dog trainer is called a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). A professional canine consultant who rehabilitates dogs is a Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA). The certification exams for these titles consist of approximately 40% content in learning theory, which is another name for behavior analysis. Some Board Certified Behavior Analysts are CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA professionals, helping our furry friends and training us to train them.
ABA is not defined by only two popular, successful applications. The meaning of ABA is broader, with its applications more extensive, and its future possibilities for our society continue to be explored. It consists of seven characteristics that were described by Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968), which define the discipline. Three key principles of ABA are that behavior is mostly a product of its environment; behavior is increased or decreased by its consequences; behavior is strengthened, or increased, by positive reinforcement. Common goals of ABA are to increase new skills that are important to the individual's life and to decrease problem behavior, most often by teaching replacement behavior. ABA can be applied to people of all ages, from infants to adults, and it can be applied to other animals.
We can use ABA in schools to prevent and reduce problem behavior, and we can also use ABA to teach students new skills, strengthen performance and fluency for mastered skills, and maintain current skills. ABA is a positive force for teaching, and we can use it in groups as well as one-on-one tutoring! Teaching and learning are not limited to the four walls of a classroom. We can use ABA to teach and learn almost any skill in many environments.
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ABA has many applications! See below for a sample of areas in which ABA helps people improve behaviors of social importance.
Health and Nutrition
Fitness, Exercise, and Sports
Behavioral Health and Medicine
Criminal Rehabilitation and Social Issues
Gerontology and Geriatrics
Organizational Behavior Management (OBM)
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
ABA is the science of learning and behavior that has far-reaching applications to improve people's lives. Read on to find out a little more about what "behavior" and "learning" mean, in addition to the primary way that we acquire and maintain new behaviors!
What is behavior?
Behavior is what people do. It is any action verb. It is also the activity of any living organism. Some parents and teachers speak of behavior as only good behavior, such as by telling a child, "Remember to behave." In contrast, some therapists and teachers use the word "behavior" only to refer to problem behavior. The therapist may say of your child, "He had no behaviors today," which is impossible, unless your child wasn't alive. Behavior encompasses all actions, whether good or bad. Speaking, walking, making a snack, going to class, and you reading this sentence are all behaviors.
What is learning?
In ABA, learning is behavior change. Behavior happens in response to the environment, so if we want behavior to change, then we change the environment. If we want to teach new behavior, then we ourselves have to do something new! Something happens before behavior (an antecedent) and after behavior (a consequence). If we change what reliably happens before and/or after the behavior, then the behavior changes. As we create new events to evoke new behavior, we repeatedly observe and measure whether the behavior is changing in the direction we want, such as the behavior increasing over time.
What is reinforcement?
Reinforcement means that when a behavior occurs, followed by a consequence, the behavior increases in the future. Positive reinforcement is additive: after the behavior occurs, a preferred stimulus is added (presented). The learner gets something. For example, you have no water, and you ask the server for water, resulting in you getting water. This results in you repeating the behavior again in the future when you're water-deprived and when you see the server. Negative reinforcement is subtractive: after the behavior occurs, a non-preferred stimulus is subtracted (removed) or reduced. The learner gets out of something. For example, you need quiet time, and you turn the music down, resulting in the music playing at a lower volume. This results in you repeating the behavior again in the future when you need quiet time and when you see the volume button. Both types of reinforcement result in an increase in the behavior. Both types of reinforcement can be used to teach new skills. In ABA, we use positive reinforcement the most often.