What are the characteristics of a teacher using ABA?

How do you know a teacher implements ABA classroom strategies?  While there are hundreds of different teaching philosophies and methods, it should be possible to identify a classroom teacher using ABA methods without much difficulty.  Observe the classroom, and you should find these characteristics of a teacher using ABA:

The Traits of a Teacher Implementing ABA Behavior Strategies:

  • Analytical
  • Behavioral
  • Collaborative
  • Has Clear Rules and Expectations
  • Data-Driven
  • Empathetic
  • Focuses on Function
  • Arranges the Environment for Success
  • And above all else, uses positive reinforcement.

ABA Teachers Are Analytical.

First and foremost, teachers using ABA behavior strategies must be analytical.  Implementing ABA in the classroom requires a teacher to be curious, scientific, and interested in learning about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of student behavior.  It’s not enough for an ABA classroom teacher to go through the motions of teaching or do things willy-nilly.  Teachers using ABA create detailed plans, observe for systematic changes, and as a result, see meaningful growth in their students.

ABA Teachers Are Behavioral.

This one may seem a bit obvious.  Of course, a teacher using ABA in the classroom should be behavioral.  But what does that mean?  It means that the teacher focuses on student behaviors that can be observed and measured—and not the subjective.  A successful teacher defines student behavior clearly and objectively, avoiding emotional terms like ‘naughty, or ‘out-of-control.’ A behavior defined using behavioral terms also avoids diagnostic labels, and saying things like “the student is disruptive because he has autism.”

ABA focused teachers also choose behaviors to focus on with their students that promote practical and meaningful outcomes. They spend time getting to know a student’s strengths and difficulties and create goals accordingly.  Successful ABA in the classroom requires teachers to focus on behaviors that matter rather than unrealistic behavioral goals or goals that work on skills a student may not generalize outside the classroom.

ABA Teachers Collaborate.

Time to explore a problematic issue.  For a variety of different reasons, ABA professionals have earned the reputation among some teachers and school administrators as lacking a collaborative approach.  Even though the ethical codes that behavior analysts require working together with professionals in other disciplines, the field continues to struggle in this area.  Teachers implementing ABA behavior strategies in the classroom should prepare for challenges in collaborating and should work even harder to show a partnership and teamwork approach to student behavior.

What does a collaborative approach involve?

  • Learning how other professionals approach problem behavior, including speech and occupational therapists, school psychologists, mental health staff, and social workers.
  • Working together to form behavior plans that meet everyone’s needs.
  • Taking the extra effort to make sure all voices are heard at the table.
  • When disagreements arise on what approach to take, rely on data-based decision making instead of emotional arguments.

It’s easy to start from a place of openness and teamwork.  It’s far more challenging to restore relationships once disagreements or trust issues arise.  ABA teachers that focus on a collaborative approach have a far greater chance of finding success for their students.

ABA Teachers Have Clear Rules and Expectations.

If a teacher effectively uses ABA classroom strategies, more than likely, the teacher also uses clear rules and expectations for students.  Laying the ground rules for appropriate and inappropriate student behavior, and holding students accountable to those expectations produces better outcomes in the classroom.  Whenever possible, ABA teachers set student expectations as positive behavior rules (example:  “Raise your hand to ask questions.” vs. “Don’t line up at my desk.”). They should also be rules the teacher themselves upholds.  Having a classroom rule limiting student technology use, only to see the teacher checking social media between activities does not promote success.

ABA Teachers Use Data-Driven Decision Making.

 Start any ABA teaching training program, and before long, you’ll run into data collection.  ABA teachers use data to inform nearly every aspect of their teaching.  How do you know a student struggles with a particular skill?  Collect data.  Did the intervention you select improve the situation or make it worse?  The only way to know is to collect data.  ABA classroom ideas are only as useful as the data-driven decision making behind them.

ABA Teachers Demonstrate Empathy.

The other teacher characteristics on this list focus on the technology and science of ABA.  Yet teachers that implement ABA in the classroom must also demonstrate empathy.  The ability to understand and share other’s perspectives, including students, parents, or coworkers, creates classrooms that better help students learn.  According to the National Association for Educating Young Children, teachers that demonstrate empathy—especially towards students of diverse backgrounds—can support children with challenging behaviors and help teachers feel more successful in the classroom.

ABA Teachers Focus on the Function of Behavior.

Along with holding empathetic values towards their students, successful teachers implementing ABA classroom strategies also focus on the function of the behavior.  Understanding the primary functions of behavior (including access to social attention, escape or avoidance, access to tangibles, and automatic reinforcement) and how they translate into student behavior is a hallmark of Applied Behavior Analysis.  Teachers that understand the function or ‘why’ a problem behavior occurs can create better interventions, can respond to problem behavior faster, and see changes in student behavior maintain over time.

ABA Teachers Arrange the Environment for Success.

 Sometimes you can tell a teacher is implementing ABA classroom ideas just by walking in the door.  ABA teachers arrange the classroom environment for success, creating spaces that promote learning, reduce distractions, and engage students.  ABA teacher training should include learning to identify how a student’s physical space can increase or decrease the likelihood of problem behaviors.  Perhaps chatting with friends goes down if a student sits closer to the front.  Or it may be that student participation increases when the teacher presents activities on the carpet versus seated at tables or desks.  A skilled ABA teacher analyzes the physical classroom environment and ways to arrange the space for better student success.

Above all else, ABA Teachers Use Positive Reinforcement.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll recognize a teacher using ABA in the classroom by the rate of positive reinforcement.  Teachers that use ABA classroom strategies like behavior-specific praise, classroom reward systems and student-driven positive reinforcement see the most success.  Studies show that teachers who use high rates of positive reinforcement (up to 6 praise statements every 15 minutes) in the classroom see better student responding and lower rates of problem behavior.

One of the best parts about implementing positive reinforcement in the classroom is that it’s a proactive intervention.  Rather than responding to problem behavior over and over again, teachers implementing behavior-specific, individualized positive reinforcement can often get ahead of the situation, before it falls apart.  High-quality ABA teacher training should include specific examples of positive reinforcement in the classroom and allow teachers to practice and receive feedback on their reinforcement delivery.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

February 2020

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