Applied Behavior Analysis, or “ABA,” is the use of scientific principles of behavior and learning to change or improve a child’s interactions with other people and items in his or her environment. Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence based practice, meaning decades of research have shown that the strategies are effective in changing behavior. We know this to be true, because a good Applied Behavior Analysis program has specific goals and data to support whether a child is making progress towards those goals!
The word “behaviors” often has a negative connotation - parents might hear that their child had “no behaviors” today at school or daycare (whew!). However, Board Certified Behavior Analysts view everything a child does as a “behavior.” Some behaviors we want to see more of (e.g., communication, appropriate social skills, playing with toys), and other behaviors we want to see less of (e.g., aggression, self-injury, rude or awkward social interactions).
When we want to increase a behavior, we must reinforce it. Applied Behavior Analysis uses reinforcement, or rewards, to teach and encourage new behaviors. If a child says “cookie” when he wants a snack, his therapist or parent rewards that communication by giving him a cookie, and probably praise, high fives, and tickles, too! By being rewarded with an actual cookie and fun social praise, the child learns that the next time he wants a cookie, he should say “cookie” to get the same kind of reaction again! Over time, as new behaviors become easier for a child to do, therapists can reduce the “extra” rewards that are given, and the child is naturally reinforced by the things and people in their world, just like any other child would be.
When we want to decrease a “problem” behavior, a Behavior Analyst needs to observe the child’s behaviors in the context of their everyday life. They will look to see what happens before and after a problem behavior to understand “why” the child is doing it. Did a kiddo hit his sibling because Mom is on the phone and he is trying to get her attention, or because his sister just took his favorite train and he wants it back? The “why” of behaviors is very important – it helps the Behavior Analyst know how to respond to the behavior and what other skills to teach the child.
ABA therapy can work on all sorts of behavior changes. Communication, play and social skills, group or school skills, eating, sleeping, toilet training, conversation skills, completing daily routines independently, and reducing problem or dangerous behaviors are all things that can be part of an ABA program. ABA can look different depending on each specific child’s needs and the skills that are being addressed. Sometimes ABA means practicing specific skills over and over in a controlled setting – often referred to as “discrete trial training.” ABA could also look like playing games or role-playing with peers or parents. ABA can take place at home, in a child’s natural community (e.g., daycare, the grocery store, the park), or at a therapy clinic.
The right ABA program for you and your child should have several key features:
- A Board Certified Behavior Analyst designing and leading the program
- Meaningful and functional goals – things that are going to help change your child’s daily life
- Frequent data collection and analysis – therapists should be taking data on specific targets and looking at that data regularly to determine if the interventions and therapy are working
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