What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behavior Analysis or, as it’s commonly called, ABA is a therapeutic approach to dealing with behavioral disorders that is based on the science of learning and behavior. ABA typically includes a focus on developing minds and is most often used on children or young adults, however, it can be used for people of all ages! Applied Behavior Analysis helps us understand learning patterns, environmental effects on one’s development, and how to approach common learning disorders.

Jumpstart your career in applied behavior analysis by exploring online ABA programs.

ABA Therapy Overview

The primary recipients of ABA therapy are individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a complex neurobehavioral condition, of varying severity, that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. The goals of individuals participating in ABA therapy are to improve language capabilities and other communication skills, limit negative behavioral patterns, improve learning outcomes, and help develop social skills - among many others.

Types of ABA Therapy

There are a variety of different techniques and approaches to applied behavior analysis, including many therapeutic methods in attempting to overcome learning difficulties. The most popular and widely known method is known as Discrete Trial Teaching. Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) is a method of teaching in simplified and structured steps. During DTT, instead of teaching an entire skill in one go, the skill is broken down and “built-up” using discrete trials that teach each step one at a time.

Although Discrete Trial Training is the closest thing to a “baseline” in the field of ABA, many other methods are gaining popularity in recent years. Practicing ABA therapy in natural settings instead of controlled settings as well as an increased emphasis on ABA in schools are a few newly appreciated methodologies. Regardless of the approach to ABA employed by the therapist, circling back to the ABCs of Behavior is vital to any effective process - antecedent, behavior, and consequence. For more information about ABC and useful tools to put into practice, check out this guide to ABC charts for applied behavior analysis.

ABC's of Behavior:

A: Antecedent

The contributing factors to a behavior, sometimes referred to as ‘triggers’.

B: Behavior

The actual response or reaction to the antecedent.

C: Consequence

Specific response to the behavior that will make it more/less likely to happen in the future.

Outcomes of ABA Therapy

The primary goals of ABA therapy are to reduce unwanted behavior patterns and to teach new, productive skills to help drive meaningful change within an individual. Meaningful change is naturally on a case-by-case level, but it is important to set specific and measurable goals at the beginning of the process in order to acknowledge outcomes properly.

How to Become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst

There are a few different variations in how to become a board certified behavior analyst, with some common threads between all the paths. As far as educational requirements go, what degree you will need is largely dependent on your salary and career expectations and the type of setting you want to practice behavior analysis in. To become a behavior analyst in a school, for example, you will likely need to pursue advanced education and obtain an official certification by the BACB (Behavior Analyst Certification Board)

The common steps to becoming a board certified behavior analyst include:

  • Obtaining a Bachelors Degree
  • Completion of a masters program in applied behavior analysis (for individuals looking to unlock higher career potential)
  • Participating in some form of fieldwork, practicum, shadowing program, or comparable experience
  • Exploring state by state requirements to determine what you need to practice ABA in your home state

Common Terms in Applied Behavior Analysis

Below is a glossary of common terms and acronyms in the field of applied behavior analysis, along with their definitions:

ABC’s of Behavior: A tool used to collect information about the events that are occuring in a child’s environment. A is for antecedent, the event that precedes the behavior, B is for the actual behavior and C is for consequence, or the event that immediately follows the behavior.

ABLLS-R: Stands for Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills - Revised. A comprehensive assessment and curriculum planning tool that allows you assess across 25 varied domains to get a complete snapshot of a child’s functioning level, strengths, and deficits. Domains include self help skills, gross motor skills, receptive skills, group instruction, etc.

Contingent Observation: A method of controlling disruptive behavior. Individuals who misbehave are given instruction on better ways to act. Then they’re asked to remove themselves from the social group temporarily while they watch the other students behaving appropriately.

Autism: Refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. Also called autism spectrum disorder.

BCBA: Stands for Board Certified Behavioral Analyst. This is the board certification required for a person to become a Behavior Analyst, and it is recognized worldwide. In many states or with insurance companies, only BCBAs are recognized as being properly authorized to oversee, manage, or supervise ABA programs.

Chaining: Breaking a skill down into its step by step components.

Chunking: The process of taking individual pieces of information (chunks) and grouping them into larger units.

Classical Conditioning: A kind of learning in which a person comes to associate two kinds of stimuli, one that naturally prompts a given behavior and one that does not.

Clustering: Organizing information in memory into related groups

Contingent Observation: A method of controlling disruptive behavior. Individuals who misbehave are given instruction on better ways to act. Then they’re asked to remove themselves from the social group temporarily while they watch the other students behaving appropriately.

Discrete Trial Teaching: A method of teaching in simplified and structured steps. Instead of teaching an entire skill in one go, the skill is broken down and “built-up” using discrete trials that teach each step one at a time.

DSM(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual): The manual published by the American Psychiatric Association which lists all classifications of mental disorders.

Echolalia: The repetition of phrases, words or parts of words.

FBA(Functional Behavior Assessment): Looks at the reasons behind a child's behavior problems in order to improve behavior.

Naturalistic Teaching: A strategy that focuses on letting the student set the pace of learning in the context of their regular daily routines.

Operant Conditioning: A method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Pivotal Response Therapy: Builds on naturalistic teaching, yet it provides a bit more structure. While still student-directed, this method focuses specifically on improving core skills such as motivation, being able to respond to more than one cue, induction into social structures, self regulation, and other critical development areas.

Spectrum: Refers to the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.

Target Behavior: Behavior that has been selected for change.

Token Economy: A system for providing positive reinforcement to a child or children by given them tokens for completing tasks or behaving in desired ways.

VB-MAPP Assessment (Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program): A criterion-referenced assessment curriculum guide and skills tracking system designed specifically for children with autism and other individuals who demonstrate language delays