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How Does Research Support Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), or some form of it, has been around for over a century and is considered an evidence-based, therapeutic intervention that is supported by science and backed by research. There is a long and impressive history among the field of ABA and the strategies and interventions that individuals can as a result of it are abundant. 

A Quick History of ABA

Applied Behavior Analysis began with John B. Watson, who was coined the “father of behaviorism” and also served as the president of the American Psychological Association. In 1913, Watson wrote the article titled Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, which paved the way for other like-minded professionals to join in on the conversation of behavior management and modification and helped to popularize the term behaviorism (Education Encyclopedia)

Next came BF Skinner, who in the 1930s helped lay the groundwork for the ABA we now know with his written work titled The Behavior of Organisms. Skinner developed the three-term contingency, which he is widely known for. Most people know this as the Antecedent Behavior Consequence (ABC) model, which “is a tool that can help people examine behaviors they want to change, the triggers behind those behaviors, and the impact of those behaviors on negative or maladaptive patterns” (BetterHelp).

Throughout the following years, Watson, Skinner, among others pioneered behavioral psychology into what we are now familiar with. Therapists, psychologists, behavioral scientists, educators, coaches, behavioral specialists, employers, and other professionals utilize the interventions that ABA provides. ABA is no longer a trade secret; the process, the interventions, and the positive outcomes can all be experienced by the general population—and one great thing about ABA is that the interventions are clear cut and the process of using the ABC model is simple and objective. 

The Groups of People ABA is Beneficial to Use With

While evidence-based ABA intervention strategies are most commonly used with those individuals with autism and in the world of education, they are also used with the following groups of people: those with traumatic brain injuries, those who engage in criminal behavior, those with severe mental health and substance abuse disorders, and those with phobias. ABA strategies can also be used to train animals and deal with people in the workplace.

The Top Evidence-Based ABA Strategies 

Applied Behavior Analysis is considered an evidence-based best practice treatment by the US Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Association. 

“Evidence-based means that ABA has passed scientific tests of its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness. ABA therapy includes many different techniques. All of these techniques focus on antecedents (what happens before a behavior occurs) and on consequences (what happens after the behavior)” (Autism Speaks). 

Each of the following strategies has been clinically proven to be effective with individuals with autism and within an educational setting; however, they can also be used in other settings and with other groups of people. 

Antecedent-Based Interventions; Differential Reinforcement of Alternative, Incompatible, or Other Behavior; Discrete Trial Training; Exercise; Extinction; Functional Behavior Assessment; Functional Communication Training; Modeling; Naturalistic Teaching; Parent-Implemented Intervention; Peer-Mediated Instruction; Picture Exchange Communication System; Pivotal Response Training; Prompting; Reinforcement; Redirection; Scripting; Self-Management; Social Narratives; Social Skills Training; Task Analysis; Time Delay; Video Modeling; and Visual Supports (Breakthrough Behavior). 

Applied Behavior Analysis and Education 

Teachers need access to strategies that are scientifically supported and the field of ABA can provide school systems with these. Most students during the average school day come into contact with an adult who is using ABA strategies to gain the desired outcome. Rewarding students who are behaving appropriately while walking through the halls, incentivizing students who take their time during a test, or creating a new FBA are all examples of how ABA can be applied to a school setting (Psych Central). Understanding antecedents and consequences to student behavior are crucial and help teachers to gain insight into how to intervene to modify the behaviors. 

Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism

ABA is used ubiquitously as a type of intervention for those with autism in educational settings, on an individual or group basis with a counselor or a professional who is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), or in special treatment setting. Parents and caregivers of children with autism can use ABA interventions and teach the skills once they are familiar with them, which helps with generalization; they are highly encouraged to practice with their children outside of treatment to reinforce desired behaviors away from their teacher or counselor/BCBA. 

The utilization of ABA with individuals with autism has been around for quite some time. 

“O. Ivar Lovaas (1927–2010) devoted nearly half a century to ground-breaking research and practice aimed at improving the lives of children with autism and their families. In the 1960s, he pioneered applied behavior analytic (ABA) interventions to decrease severely challenging behaviors and establish communicative language. Later, he sought to improve outcomes by emphasizing early intervention for preschoolers with autism, provided in family homes with active parental participation. His studies indicated that many children who received early intensive ABA made dramatic gains in development. Lovaas also disseminated ABA widely through intervention manuals, educational films, and public speaking” (Smith, 2010). 

Without Lovaas’ perseverance in the world of research, the field of ABA in relation to autism may not be where it is today. 

What is the End Goal with ABA?

The primary purpose of Applied Behavior Analysis is always to define one or more inappropriate or unacceptable behaviors to decrease and find a way to replace those with more appropriate behaviors. In a classroom setting, screaming, banging heads, and eloping are not conducive for learning nor are they safe. With the use of ABA, the teacher, behavioral specialist, or BCBA will observe these behaviors and determine the antecedent before the behavior and the consequence after it. This will help a team strategically plan out interventions they believe will be most effective for that student to help them in decreasing those unacceptable behaviors. 

Of course, this does not always have to be used in a school setting. As listed above, there are multiple settings in which ABA techniques can be successful. 

No wonder with ABA’s extensive history and high success rate, the interventions associated with it are used all across settings and with various groups of people. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

February 2020

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