By Dr. Cat Baker, PhD, BCBA-D
There is quite a bit of misunderstanding about what Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is all about. Similarly, there are a lot of misconceptions about who it can benefit. If you’re familiar with the ideas behind positive reinforcement, then you know just a very small bit about this work, but there is a lot more to it than that! ABA is not just a bag of tricks (like sticker charts and treasure boxes) and it’s not just for children on the autism spectrum. Here, you’ll learn a bit about what ABA is and who it can benefit. We’ll also explore some common myths and facts about the work, which should help deepen your understanding.
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What is ABA?
Applied Behavior Analysis (or ABA Therapy) is quite simply the study of behavior. Defined in this way, “behavior” includes everything that someone does; from sleeping, to reading, to communicating with peers. Behavior Analysis is not just the study of problem behaviors. It also encompasses the study of the actions and interactions that we as practitioners want others to engage in. Essentially, it’s the study of how learning behaviors, of any kind or sort, take place.
An ABA approach is applied via individualized programs which are custom-tailored to meet the needs of each child exactly where they are. The work begins by building a better understanding of an individual’s behaviors and needs through one-to-one interactions with the child, and through feedback provided by parents, caregivers, doctors, and teachers. Next, we’re ready to begin preparing, and working through, a highly-individualized plan with the child, the school, and the family.
Because ABA is all about the study of behavior, it’s easily applied to fixing problems. But, this work is not just about the techniques and tools that are provided along the way. It’s just as much about the understanding and the analysis that brings those techniques forward. The primary word here is analysis. ABA therapists seek to understand what is happening and why it’s happening. Once that’s understood, strategies and techniques can be applied to help to shift and change behavior. So, if learning has been derailed for any reason, whether it’s a biological issue, something in the environment, or even if a child experiences a trauma, we can apply ABA techniques to help the individual work through these challenges.
To summarize, Behavior Analysis is the study of human behavior – why humans do what they do and how they learn new skills. We can help children adjust their actions and interactions through better understanding. We look at the nature and root of their adaptive skills and unwanted behaviors they’re currently exhibiting. Then, we can put a highly personalized and individualized plan into place, and make adjustments along the way in order to guide real change and real progress.
Who can benefit from ABA?
There are a lot of misunderstandings about how behavioral problems manifest in children, and about how a diagnosis can help to parse this information out. There was scientific research in the late 80s that showed that ABA could make significant progress for kids with autism. So, when you google the term, the vast majority of the information that’s revealed relates to how the therapy works for kids on the autism spectrum. However, ABA can be beneficial for just about everyone.
At FCI, we work with children with all kinds of different learning and behavioral challenges through an ABA approach. An ABA approach can help ease struggles associated with ADHD, anxiety, or depression. Really, anyone and everyone can benefit from this work, even if they’ve never received a diagnosis.
It should also be noted that Behavior Analysis is not just limited to children. There’s a whole branch of ABA called Organizational Behavior Management that is focused on business and employment. This work allows organizations to determine how to bring out the best in their employees and how to maximize the working environment. Another branch of ABA is focused on the elderly population.
In short, the possible problems to be addressed by ABA are simply the vast array of human difficulties!
Myths and Facts about ABA:
Let’s take a closer look at three important points about ABA in an effort to dispel some myths and get to the facts.
Myth: ABA is just a bag of tricks (sticker charts, first then boards, etc.)
Fact: Every Program is Unique.
Some have learned to recognize ABA by the tools that its practitioners bring to the table. However, putting an entire classroom on a sticker chart to elicit good behavior isn’t always as effective as adults might hope. ABA can help everyone because it addresses each individual’s unique needs in the ways that are best-suited for them. This is quite different than the way a medical diagnosis is treated. Medical diagnoses are definitive and universal. The same treatments are assigned to individuals who’ve received the same diagnosis. If your tooth becomes infected, it’s removed. If another person’s tooth is similarly infected, the dentist will remove that tooth as well. However, the same rules don’t apply when it comes to a behavioral diagnosis. This is because a behavioral diagnosis is simply a label for a group of behaviors that tend to occur together. So, groups of behaviors are categorized as indicating ADHD, or indicating generalized anxiety. But, even within those categories, things tend to manifest differently from case to case. One child with an ADHD diagnosis might have trouble sitting still or controlling impulses in a classroom setting. Another child with an ADHD diagnosis might struggle to focus in class and may “tune out.” Just as the challenges manifest in unique ways in an individual with a behavioral challenge, so too must the treatment plan be custom-tailored to meet each individual exactly where they are.
Remember, a good ABA treatment plan is unique and individualized. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in Applied Behavior Analysis or therapy, it’s much more complex and personalized than that!
Myth: ABA doesn’t address the root cause of behavior.
Fact: The core of ABA is the analysis of the cause itself.
It is essential to get to the root causes of behaviors in order to help a child forge a new path. So, ABA is as much about the analysis itself as it is about the tools applied toward a solution. For example, if a child is acting out or engaging in a problem behavior, we work to understand why that child is acting out. If we learn that the child is trying to get attention and that’s the reason they’re engaging in some kind of problem behavior, we know we have to teach them how to gain people’s attention appropriately. Understanding why the child is acting out is essential for plotting a course that fixes the problem. If we find that a technique isn’t working, we go back to the analysis in an effort to understand the child and the root cause of the behavior a bit better. This part of our work is crucial for determining which tools to apply. ABA is as much about the analysis itself as it is about the fixes.
Myth: ABA focuses too much on punishing out bad behavior and depending on “rewards” for good behavior.
Fact: ABA focuses on all components of why behavior happens including motivation, what is happening before the behavior, as well as what happens after a behavior.
It’s important to understand that the methods we use aren’t just about rewards and punishments. The tools used in ABA don’t just reinforce or admonish behavior. In fact, we rarely use punishment. It is an absolute last resort and often only for severely dangerous behavior. We address issues on the front end of the activity or interaction and promote actions that prevent problem behaviors from happening in the first place. We call this antecedent intervention, and it’s a very important part of ABA work. Antecedent interventions and teaching children what occurs before a behavior happens allows us to help children anticipate and prepare for challenges. Let’s say that you’re going to a restaurant. Talking about the rules and challenges that may arise ahead of time can go a long way to prevent a problem. For example, you might review two to three simple rules with your child before heading in, such as no yelling and that they have to stay in their seat. You might also say that if they follow these rules, they can have ice cream for dessert. But, this reward is contingent upon them avoiding the problem behaviors of yelling or running around the restaurant. This type of antecedent intervention, or pre-teaching, can also happen in much more complex and nuanced ways. All kinds of different strategies and methods come into play with an ABA approach. But, the work is about a lot more than just rewards and punishments.
At it’s core, ABA is about helping children to adjust their behaviors in ways that serve them better in the long run. This work helps children to be happier and more successful because it addresses their specific and precise needs. The successes tend to build on themselves as kids gain the first-hand experience with the benefits of making changes. Ultimately, they are able to live life more effectively, happily, and with more confidence in their skills than where they started!
Ready for more? You may be interested in Behavioral Treatment for Tics: First-Line Intervention. You can also check out Overcoming and Redefining Disability. If you are ready to talk with us about an ABA approach for your family, please contact us for scheduling!