The Use of ABA in Conjunction with Psychotherapy

In addition to its uses as a stand-alone technique for managing various behavioral issues, applied behavior analysis (ABA) can also be used in conjunction with psychotherapy to provide well-rounded treatment to patients. While there are several key differences in the fundamental approach of psychotherapy and ABA, combining the two methods gives therapists more tools for dealing with a wide range of mental and emotional disorders. Ultimately, both types of treatment are oriented around the individual needs of patients and focus on personal solutions to specific challenges in the person’s life.

Related resource: 40 Best Online ABA Graduate Certificate Online Programs.

The Basic Structure of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is also referred to as talk-therapy due to its focus on conversational interactions between therapist and patient. Psychologists first work to establish a trusting relationship so they can work collaboratively with the subject to achieve their mental health goals. As a relatively broad treatment strategy, psychotherapy is often used as an exclusive or component treatment for a wide variety of health concerns, including depression, social anxiety, and addiction disorders.

Therapists may take an active role in guiding and shaping the conversation, or simply provide an engaging environment where patients can freely express their thoughts and feelings to a receptive audience. Therapy sessions are extremely flexible and can be adjusted to accommodate single patients as well as groups, ranging from families to communal support groups. Therapists and patients work together to establish a schedule, including number and length of sessions, that is comfortable and acceptable to both parties.

The Intersection of ABA and Psychotherapy

Applied behavior analysis and psychotherapy may share many of the same goals and priorities, but there are also a few key differences that set them apart. Perhaps the most important distinction is in the way these perspectives target unproductive behaviors. Psychotherapy sessions target the thoughts and feelings that precede or are immediately associated with unwanted behaviors. Therapists help clients express the thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that drive their actions so the can learn how to manage and control them over time.

In contrast, behavior analysts typically ignore these concepts and focus exclusively on direct conditioning of the manifested behavior. While there is some overlap in the goals and techniques of psychotherapy and ABA, the two practices are notably distinct. Rather than addressing the initial source of unproductive behavior, applied behavior analysts look for the factors that are currently reinforcing them. Behavior analysts are particularly interested in the events that directly follow the manifestations of the target behavior, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).

The Value of Practical Behavior Analysis

One of the main reasons why ABA works well in conjunction with psychotherapy is that the two methods address areas that the other does not. Conventional psychotherapy relies heavily on dialogue leading to self-awareness and eventually self-correction in the patient. ABA, on the other hand, takes several steps beyond counseling to incorporate tangible and directed conditioning measures to directly address unproductive behaviors.

This type of intervention is highly flexible and can be scaled to almost any situation. Behavior analysts routinely use operant conditioning, including positive and negative reinforcement, to develop patterns of positive behavior and break negative ones. Creating new consequences to follow actions is a basic step in conditioning patients to adopt a healthier attitude and reactions to specific stimuli in their environment. Therapists can also adapt and expand therapy sessions to aid in skill acquisition, including professional and personal skills, and improve social function.

Integrated Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In the context of psychotherapy, ABA techniques are usually applied in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a broad concept that incorporates elements of ABA alongside other conventional therapies to help patients build a foundation for long-term improvement. As with applied behavior analysts, cognitive behavior therapists focus on the immediate and visible drivers of behavior rather than the initial source. Thoughts and emotions are both relevant to CBT practitioners, as are the basic triggers and consequences that directly influence specific behaviors.

Comprehensive Treatment Strategies

There is substantial evidence supporting the efficacy of both psychotherapy and ABA for treating individuals suffering from a wide range of mental and cognitive disorders. However, these strategies are often used alongside medical and other psychological treatments to provide comprehensive care to patients. For example, people suffering from addiction disorders typically receive medical intervention in the form of medication in addition to therapeutic guidance and support. Many clinical psychologists and behavior analysts work as part of a team that includes physical therapists, doctors and other professionals who collaborate on patient treatment.

Working in ABA and Psychotherapy

Many behavior analysts have some academic or professional experience in psychotherapy as well as cognitive behavior therapy. While they are technically different disciplines, many of the key skills and qualifications are the same. Both fields revolve around patient care, so many relevant careers and jobs are found in clinical and institutional environments. However, experts in ABA and psychotherapy can also pursue professional positions outside of patient care, particularly in the areas of research and education.

Preparing for a Career

Anyone with a serious interest in a career as a behavior analyst or clinical therapist should plan to acquire at least a master’s degree in their chosen discipline. Some entry-level positions have less demanding application requirements, but practitioners need a graduate degree to truly launch their careers. Students and new professionals should also consider pursuing standard qualifications, including credentials from the BACB. Additional information and resources are available through other professional organizations, like the American Psychiatric Association (APA) or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT).

Psychotherapy and ABA are two of the oldest tools in the modern psychologist’s arsenal, and they are still among the most effective ones available. While there are plenty of unknowns regarding the human brain and mind, psychologists can consistently apply the principles of behavior analysis to generate positive change in patients suffering from numerous emotional, mental and cognitive disorders. Applied behavior analysis in conjunction with psychotherapy is a powerful combination that can produce significant, measurable improvement in the subject’s quality of life.