Affecting Behavior Change, LLC

Click here to edit subtitle


What We Don't Know about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Posted on August 24, 2017 at 10:10 AM

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is primarily known as the research-based treatment for individuals with Autism.  Many people believe that ABA is discrete trial teaching (DTT).  DTT is one of the many components of ABA.  However, there are a vast array of principles and procedures that fall under the umbrella of ABA.  In the following blog, programming pivotal behaviors (i.e.: self-initiation, self-management) is discussed.   Rather than working on specific targets or things to teach, programming pivotal behaviors (wide area of functioning) will produce greater effects.  When teaching learners to increase motivation, self-initiate, or self-manage, educating across behaviors instead of teaching a discrete skill can produce acquisition, mastery, and generalization at a faster rate. 

To do this: Utilize natural reinforcement (occurs directly as a result of the behavior emitted [student studies hard and pays attention in class-natural reinforcement=get good grades]) Intersperse mastery trials (make learners successful by reviewing known targets) Use learner-selected materials (Allow the learner to choose writing utensils, actual materials to create/make, etc.) Teach learner-initiated responses (What does the student want to learn about?) Motivation is described as observable individual responding that shows an increased reaction to social and environmental situations. Simply, the learner's affect, interest, enthusiasm, and happiness increases. Self-initiated learning increases spontaneous interactions by teaching the learner to initiate question asking, which makes the learner viewed as socially appropriate.  Self-management or monitoring gives the learner a sense of responsibility for his/her actions which increases self-esteem.  A benefit of self-monitoring is that no one else is needed to observe the learner or reinforce her/him.

How to teach Pivotal Behaviors: Give the learner choice in teaching interactions.  This will decrease disruptive behaviors and increase adaptive behaviors (i.e.: time on task).  For instance, where will the teaching be completed, what materials will be used, etc.  If the learner is unable to make a choice without options, offer them a forced choice (between two plausible options).  This can be done verbally, with pictures, or in written format. Vary hard or teaching tasks with familiar, easy tasks.  Motivation decreases because of repeated failures.  Make learners successful by having them respond correctly.  This increases the probability that they will be successful with the teaching task.  This is called building behavior momentum.  Vary task size.  If a task is difficult, teach it in steps to make the child successful.  This will decrease frustration and build on the skills he/she currently has.  Modify the pace of teaching.  Quick instruction is much more likely to be successful than long, and what becomes boring, tasks. Reinforce all attempts of what you are teaching.  This will improve the learner???s responsiveness during social interactions.  Use enthusiastic praise!  The power of praise is highly undervalued. Natural reinforcement is directly related to the task being taught.  Natural reinforcement increases motivation and rate of learning.  For instance, if the learner requests that a peer plays a board game (being a board game that the learner enjoys); it is naturally reinforced when the peer and learner play. Priming through practice.  Have the learner practice or role play at home to help with social interactions at school or in the community.  This increases generalization (being able to perform at home, school, and in the community with different people and in dissimilar situations).


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Koegel, R.L., Koegel, L. K., & Carter, C. M. (1999). Pivotal teaching interactions for children with Autism. School Psychology Review, 28(3), 576-594.

Categories: None