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5 Applied Behavior Analysis Teaching Strategies

If you have ever spent time in a classroom or therapeutic setting, you may have encountered teachers or specialists using behavior analysis teaching strategies in order to modify student behaviors. ABA in the classroom, in the home, and in a therapeutic setting are most often used with children and adults who have autism or a type of developmental disorder. The use of the five specific teaching strategies that will be reviewed in this article are research-based and well-known in the world of education and psychology, as well as have obvious benefits for the student or client. 

The goal is for applied behavior analysts seek to break down and examine the fundamental human behaviors that most people take for granted. While the insights it reveals have applications in numerous fields, like prison reform, adult health and social sciences, applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is also well-known for the benefits it confers upon teachers and students. 


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Experts at Autism Speaks state that behavior analysis helps us to understand:

ABA therapy applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.

Applied behavior analysis teaching strategies revolve around using scientific data to improve instructional and interactive techniques. University students who pursue ABA degrees are often better-equipped to become educators or perform research that helps other teachers and students connect.

Many now-commonplace, modern teaching strategies were originally rooted in ABA studies. Here are five you may have encountered.

ABA Teaching Strategies

While there are numerous teaching strategies that have been proven to work well in the classroom, there are five strategies that are considered to be the most effective ABA-specific strategies that teachers should use daily. 

Here are the five ABA teaching strategies that will be covered. 

  1. Discrete Trial Teaching
  2. Naturalistic Teaching
  3. Pivotal Response Therapy
  4. Token Economy
  5. Contingent Observation

1. Discrete Trial Teaching

Some of the educational concepts students have to absorb are complex. While it seems like common sense to break a big task down into more manageable parts that are easier to teach, this is actually a key component of the ABA technique known as discrete trial teaching. Discrete trial teaching, also referred to as discrete trial training or learning, is firmly rooted in behavioral learning theory.  

DTT employs a cue-and-response structure to work through the component tasks of a behavior or skill. In this model, a child who provides a response after receiving a prompt, known as a discriminative stimulus, will then be given a consequence in the form of a reward, error correction, a break, or some other reaction.

In addition to incentivizing engagement with peers and teachers, discrete trial training can help teachers interact with students who lack certain social skills. It’s also commonly used to highlight specific deficiencies for reinforcement.

Let’s look at a specific example of how this can be used in the classroom with a student by going through the five training steps of DTT.

Second-grade ASD student, Luke, is given a prompt by his Special Education teacher to point to the picture out of a series that shows someone helping someone else. 

Depending on Luke’s IEP accommodations and/or goal prompting levels, he may receive a certain type of prompt, such as a gestural or verbal prompt) in order to assist him in finding the correct answer if he seems to be struggling. In this case, Luke initially points at the incorrect picture, so his teacher gives him a verbal prompt in the form of a hint, reminding him of something they learned during their “helpful behaviors” lesson.

The response is the behavior the child exhibits when presented with the discriminative stimulus. In this case, Luke is able to point to the correct picture after the verbal prompt is given by his teacher.

Because Luke was able to answer the question within one prompt, which is written in his IEP, he is positively rewarded with a verbal praise; and if he answers five correctly, Luke will receive a sticker of his choice. These rewards are examples of positive consequences and should be given immediately as well as decided upon before the DTT begins. 

If Luke had gotten the answer incorrect after two or three prompts, this would be considered a complete incorrect answer and no positive reinforcement would be given. A simple “Let’s move on to the next question” by his teacher is appropriate here and no punishment needs to take place. 

This is simply the technical term for the end of the current trial (or question in this case) and the beginning of the next. It should only last a few seconds, as it is not recommended there be significant wait time between trials (or questions). Luke patiently waits for the next question.

When conducting a DTT session with a student, the teacher will use a specific form to record all steps, responses, or outcomes. This form can easily be made on a computer, but an ABA or school’s Special Education department should be able to give a form they regularly use to the teacher. 

2. Naturalistic Teaching

Naturalistic teaching is the second common ABA teaching strategy used. It focuses on letting the student set the pace of learning in the context of their regular daily routines. By following their students’ interests and offering coaching and feedback on target behaviors as they occur, teachers are still able to act as mediators, but by giving the learner more control over their learning, minimizing problematic behaviors that might otherwise interfere with learning.

According to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, naturalistic methods can also be easier for parents, siblings and others to implement to help learners outside the classroom. These techniques are also known for providing students with broadly-applicable skills and facilitating therapy.

Three naturalistic teaching strategies commonly used in the classroom include:

Incidental teaching is primarily used to improve language and communication skills and can be used by teachers, ABA therapists, speech, and occupational therapists. This is most appropriate for students who already have language skills. 

“When teachers, therapists or parents are using incidental teaching, they use natural opportunities for learning, like play, to develop children’s skills. And they reinforce children’s attempts to behave in a desired way as children get closer to the desired behavior,” (Raising Children). 

The main point of this type of teaching is to set up an interesting environment for the student and for them to use communication skills in order to request or interact with what they want to play with. 

“Pivotal response training focuses less on select behaviors like getting a child to communicate, and takes a broader approach by looking at the things that are “pivotal” to the child’s behavior – what motivates their behavior, how they respond (or don’t respond) to social interaction, how they manage (or don’t manage) their own feelings and behaviors. The idea is to address the cause of behaviors rather than just the individual behaviors themselves,” (ABAedu)

The four main “pivotal” areas are motivation, initiation, self-regulation, and responding to multiple cues. 

“Natural Language Paradigm (NLP) is based on the understanding that learning can be helped by deliberate arrangement of the environment in order to increase opportunities to use language. NLP emphasizes the child’s initiative. It uses natural reinforcers that are consequences related directly to the behavior, and it encourages skill generalization,” (ThriveAutismCenter). 

This is most appropriate for students who are non-verbal. 

3. Pivotal Response Therapy

Even though this was already mentioned as part of naturalistic teaching, this is actually considered an important applied behavior analysis teaching strategy on its own. 

To reiterate…

Pivotal response therapy, or PRT, builds on naturalistic teaching, yet it provides a bit more structure. While still student-directed, this method focuses specifically on improving core skills such as motivation, being able to respond to more than one cue, induction into social structures, self regulation, and other critical development areas.

PRT’s focus on imparting pivotal behaviors is no coincidence. The methodology was specifically designed to help those with autism spectrum disorders, and its supporters say improving these key skills lets those with autism spectrum disorder make strides in other domains. Notably, an extensive review of 33 autism interventions by Richard Simpson and colleagues recognized PRT as one of four scientifically-grounded autism intervention techniques.

4. Token Economy

Token economies motivate learners and selectively promote or discourage specific behaviors. Tokens, also known as conditioned reinforcers, are usually rewarded or taken away for predefined behaviors, and they’re similar to how money functions in the real world.

Tokens can take many forms, such as points, stickers or even marbles and other simple counters. Unlike discrete trial teaching rewards, the token systems aren’t necessarily dependent on providing the correct responses to given stimuli, and they may incorporate exchange methods. For instance, at the beginning of the semester, teachers might tell students they can earn points for completing assignments on time and allow them to trade in these tokens for privileges later.

The following Dos and Don’ts of a token economy come from Autism Helper:



5. Contingent Observation

Contingent observation is a method of controlling disruptive behavior and is frequently employed with groups of young children. In essence, individuals who exhibit inappropriate behaviors are given instruction on better ways to act. Then they’re asked to remove themselves from the social group temporarily while they watch the other students behaving appropriately.

You may have experienced something similar in the form of a timeout. Unlike punitive measures, such as simply telling a disruptor to go stand in a corner, contingent observation focuses on having students learn from peer examples.

Studies have shown that participating in a contingent observation procedure instead of simply being verbally redirected was “considerably more effective” in controlling inappropriate behaviors such as classroom disruption or aggression. 

Applied Behavior Analysis Teaching Strategies: Conclusion

Applied Behavior Analysts have a wide variety of strategies in their proverbial toolbox they can use with their students and clients. Any proven-to-work, research-based strategy can be appropriate for a student, as long as it fits the situation and is meant for a similar population. The five Applied Behavior Analysis teaching strategies discussed in this article are each based upon sound research and have been proven to work with students with autism and developmental disorders. The key is for the adult working with the student to be trained on the procedures and steps of the strategy they want to use with a student and ensure consistency and accuracy take place. Students can be even more successfully academically and behaviorally when ABA teaching strategies are used with them. 

ABA Staff

Updated January 2021


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