Applied Bahavior Analysis


“What is Applied Behavioral Analysis?” That is exactly what I will answer for you today.

In this post, we will talk about the science of behavioral analysis, its rich history, its characteristics and its functional utility in our everyday lives. You will discover why using behavioral analysis is important, what exactly it entails, as well as who should be using it.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

What is Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA
What is Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA. Download the ABA Infographic

So what is ABA? The formal definition of ABA is the following:

An applied behavioral analysis is the science in which procedures derived from the principles of behavior are systematically applied to improve socially significant behavior to a meaningful degree and to demonstrate experimentally that the procedures employed were responsible for the improvement in behavior.

Well, that was certainly a mouthful. In plain English – Applied Behavioral Analysis is where we research the relationship between the behavior and the environment. We then design methods to change that behavior, and then we systematically apply these methods to improve behavior. It is as simple as that.

Now that we have covered the basics of what Applied Behavior Analysis is and its brief history, let us now focus on who can practice ABA.

Who Can Use ABA?

Who can Provide ABA Therapy
Who can Provide ABA Therapy. Download this Infographic

Who can practice ABA? Anyone can practice the principles of ABA under the supervision of a board certified assistant behavioral analyst, a board certified behavioral analyst or a board certified behavioral analyst at a doctoral level. To find out more about behavioral analysis, behavioral analysts, please visit

What are the Benefits of ABA

Who Benefits from Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA Therapy
Who Benefits from Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA Therapy. Download the ABA Infographic

Top ABA Myths Vs Facts

ABA Myths

  • ABA is no longer justified when children are past preschool age
  • ABA is a one size fits all approach
  • ABA is limited to 1 or 2 specific strategies such as discrete trial training
  • ABA can only be used on a 1 to 1 basis
  • ABA is just for children with autism

ABA Facts

  • ABA has received significant recognition for the impact at the preschool level; however, it also remains the best-documented approach for older learners
  • ABA is based on the principles of human behavior, which apply to all ages, and ABA programs are based on an assessment of a student’s individual skills and is applied with a focus on maximizing his or her strengths.
  • ABA incorporates a variety of effective teaching strategies that increase a student’s skills.
  • ABA is a framework for teaching anyone anything.
  • ABA examples exist is everyday life
  • ABA methods have proven effective in teaching many skills.

Background of ABA

Before we get started into what is applied behavioral Analysis or ABA, it is important to learn where it came from. There are 2 main parts of behavioral psychology:

  • The first is Behaviourism: which is the philosophy of the science of behavior, and it is based only on theory, and not on experimental analysis.
  • The second is the Experimental Analysis of behavior – which includes basic research with the purpose to clarify the theories of behaviorism.

Applied behavioral analysis, however, is applied research with the purpose of the practical application to prove behavioral principles to improve socially significant behavior.

Although there were many contributors to the field of behavioral psychology: three main prominent figures emerge as leaders in the theoretical concepts and the applied research.

Ivan Pavlov


Pavlov discovered the conditioning reflex during his study with dogs and he established classical conditioning as a learning method; his research demonstrated that an environmental stimulus like a ringing bell could be used to stimulate a conditioned response like a dog salivating at the sound of the ringing bell.

John B. Watson


John B. Watson extended Pavlov’s theory to apply to human behavior; in 1913 he published “Psychology as the behaviorist views it” which was a landmark article and established behaviorism as a major school of thought.

B.F. Skinner


B.F. Skinner later introduced the concept of operant conditioning, which assumes that all behavior is learned. Skinner’s initial work was in labs with pigeons and rats. He constructed what is now known as a Skinner box – whereby he placed rats in a chamber, and when a lever was pressed a sugar pellet would be dispensed.

Additionally, Skinner was able to train rats on various schedules of reinforcement and was even able to show discrimination training. For example, the rats were able to learn that when a green light was on in their chamber sugar pellets were available, and when a red light was on the food was not available and they would not even approach the lever.

Enter Dr. Lovaas

You may be asking yourself, how do these concepts relate to the work that we do in education and with children with special needs?

Dr Lovaas - the Father of Applied Behavior AnalysisIt is important to learn about Dr. Ivar Lovaas. In the 1960s he pioneered Applied behavioral Analytic Interventions to decrease severe challenging behaviours and establish communicative language. Later he sought to improve outcomes by emphasizing early intervention for preschoolers with autism; his studies indicated that many children who received early intensive ABA made dramatic gains in development. He devoted nearly half a century to groundbreaking research and practice aimed at improving the lives of children with autism and their families.

How to Use Applied Behavior Analysis

How to use Applied Behavior Analysis in different settings
How to use Applied Behavior Analysis in different settings. Download How to Use ABA Infographic

So why should we use ABA? The main reason one should implement the principles of applied behavioral analysis into a program is so that we can increase positive behavior and teach new skills for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

We have already talked a little bit about maintaining behavior. For us – we often think about skills in terms of something that once acquired is easy to retain, for example, riding a bike. We have learned it before and it should be relatively easy to do it again. But what if you take a skill like polynomials in algebra? Although you probably knew it well in high school – do you think you could solve those algebra problems now without any practice? That is why the idea of maintaining skills overtime is so important.

We have also already talked about generalization. What if you were only able to exhibit a skill in one location? Lets take brushing your teeth – you have been exhibiting that skill at home in your bathroom and you have grown quite proficient at it. If the skill of tooth brushing was not generalized. You would be unable to brush your teeth while staying at a friend’s house or in a hotel. In behavioral analysis, this is always taken into consideration, and training for generalization is imperative.

We also use the principles of behavioral analysis to narrow the conditions under which interfering behaviours occur. That is – we modify the learning situations to ensure an optimal learning environment. Can you think of any examples?

Take a look at the pictures on your screen. Which desk would you prefer to work at? I think most of us agree that by altering our environment, we increase the likelihood of demonstrating more productive behavior.


A large part of the behavioral analysis is to teach skills, communication, and positive behavior. However, at the same time – the same principles are used to reduce behaviours that may interfere with this skill development. This is known as Extinction Behavior Analysis.

What else might ABA be used for? There are a few areas where the principles of applied behavior analysis are used. You are probably reading my post because you are working with or know someone with special needs. However you must know that ABA is used in many different contexts beyond intervention for autism and other developmental disabilities. There is some cutting edge research being conducted in behavioral analysis on important topics such as: childhood obesity, workplace productivity, and inmate behavior in prisons.

The complicated aspect of applied behavioral analysis is the terminology. It is common to hear many different and new terms – all being touted as different from ABA.
Here are a few examples:

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  2. Functional Behavioral Assessment
  3. Discrete Trial Training
  4. Extinction
  5. Visual Support Management
  6. Task Analysis
  7. Differential Reinforcement
  8. Naturalistic Intervention
  9. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

It is extremely important to understand that these methodologies are simply derivations from applied behavior analysis and include the exact same basic principles.

Essential Characteristics of ABA

Characteristics of Applied Behavior Analysis

There are 8 dimensions of ABA that were identified in a seminal article by Bayer, Wolff, and Risely in 1968. We will spend some time going through each of these dimensions.

The first of the important characteristics of behavioral analysis is the fact that it is applied. This means that the goal is to increase socially significant behavior in order to improve day-to-day life experiences. It is the responsibility of those applying the science to select appropriate behaviours to change. For example – would you teach a 17yr old to drink from a baby bottle? Definitely not. Selecting goals that are age-appropriate and socially significant is the responsibility of the clinician or practitioner.

The next critical dimension is that applied behavior analysis is behavioral. This means the behavior must be observable and measurable in order to study it. When changes in behavior are observed. Reliability checks are then conducted, whereby two observers record data to ensure accurate measurement.

Applied behavioral analysis is analytic. A functional relationship is demonstrated between a behavior in the environment, and the clinician should also be able to demonstrate the occurrence or non-occurrence of the behavior based on manipulations of the environment.

Using data to make decisions. What a novel idea! This is a key component of applied behavior analysis. Treatment decisions including the discontinuation or modifying programs are only made after an in-depth analysis of the data. This way we can always be sure that our teaching is effective, and if it is not – we can change it.

ABA is also technology driven. What do we mean by this? This simply means that procedures are written clearly using objective terms and can be replicated easily. The procedure description should be written clear enough that a typically trained reader can replicate the procedure, but most importantly can also produce the same result. For example – in a procedure description, we want to ensure we enlist what to do if the student responds correctly but also if the student responds partially correctly or incorrectly altogether.

ABA is conceptually systematic. This means that the procedures used are based on the principles of behavior. We never want our treatment to be a collection of tricks, but rather a sound and systematic procedure which is based on the basic principles.

ABA should be effective. Interventions that are implemented are measured for their success. If data are not increasing for skill training programs and decreasing for behavioral intervention programs – the program is revised and tweaked until the student responds in the way that we want. In fact – quality programs ensure that revision criteria are always included for all programs. For example, you may determine that you will collect data on a skill, and if you don’t see an improvement in that skill, or you see a deterioration in that skill – after 5 days the program is modified.

In order for programs to be effective – they must be generalizable. That is – the desirable behavior must last over time in multiple environments and across behaviours. Generalization and maintenance of behavior is a large part of a quality ABA program. If the student can only demonstrate the skill in one condition, in one place, over a short period of time – we would not consider this program mastered.

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