Applied Behavior Analysis in the Special Education Setting

The Application of ABA in the Special Education Setting

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) can trace much of its roots back to the need for intervention in special education settings. In the United States, public school systems are required to provide equivalent education services and opportunities to all students, including those suffering from behavioral or cognitive disorders. The principles and practices of ABA have proven to be among the few tools that are consistently effective at dealing with behavioral disorders in classroom environments. Many certified behavior analysts focus their career on special education concerns to match growing national demand.

Related resource: Top 15 Best Online Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

The ABCs of Behavior Analysis

The field of behavior analysis is broad and diverse, with many opportunities for specialization and numerous potential applications within the discipline. However, the basic principles of the practice all revolve around the management of the ABCs: antecedent, behavior, and consequence.

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Behavior analysts must identify and control the antecedents of behavior, which are events or actions that occur immediately before an unwanted or desirable behavior. They also study the behavior that occurs as a result of these antecedents. In this context, a behavior may range from an action or vocalization to an inappropriate lack of reaction. Consequences refer to the results following the behavior, including positive or negative reinforcement that may influence future behavior.

Applications in Special Education Environments

Recent estimates suggest that up to 1 out of 59 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to Autism Speaks. While autism has long been a focus for many behavior analysts, it is certainly not the only applicable condition. Behavior analysts in special education settings can also use their skills to aid students with attention disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), speech impediments and a wide range of learning disabilities. ABA’s utility in managing a wide range of behavioral issues is one of the reasons it has become a core component in most special education environments.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act

Almost all behavior analysts working in the public school system do so within the structure created by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires school districts to provide education services that accommodate the needs of students with disabilities to ensure they receive the same level of education as their peers. It’s important to note that the law also requires consideration of the least restrictive environment (LRE) for these services, so special education participants can spend as much time as possible learning in the same classrooms as general education students.

One of the core practical concepts of IDEA is the implementation of an individualized education program (IEP) for each student. This is a highly personalized approach that requires behavior analysts to create a learning and behavior management strategy tailored to the individual. Fortunately, ABA is a flexible discipline that usually focuses on personalized treatment and solutions, which makes it even more appropriate for special education students. The Individuals with Disabilities Act also stipulates the measurement of results, which is often addressed through the completion of functional behavior assessments (FBAs) for each student.

Using ABA in Classroom Management

The practical principles of behavior analysis have been successfully applied in many communal environments, including the classroom. Educators may leverage their own knowledge of ABA to apply these principles or receive consultation from a licensed analyst on an as-needed basis. Classroom applications tend to focus on creating a reward infrastructure that allows teachers to encourage positive behavior. Token economies that allow for occasional rewards after consistent positive behavior is one approach. Teachers may also create a group “pool” where the entire class earns a reward based on everyone’s individual actions.

Teachers can also keep the basic principles of ABA in mind when creating and administering classroom policies. Students in special education settings can derive a lot of benefit from structured learning, so quizzes and tests can be delivered on a firm schedule to encourage consistency. Educators can also encourage structured and productive social interactions by insisting that students raise hands before speaking and avoid interrupting other students who are trying to make a point.

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Personalized Therapy and Behavior Management

Behavior analysis also serves an essential role in ongoing treatment outside of the classroom. Students with autism or learning disorders may fall behind their peers in a few specific areas despite adequate academic performance overall. Shortcomings in social ability or specific learning skills can be addressed through personalized therapy sessions like those seen in clinical environments. Behavior analysts may also work with the student’s family or caregivers to extend treatment programs into the subject’s home life as well to encourage consistent growth. Comprehensive behavior management plans typically require some control over environmental factors both at home and at school.

Practicing Behavior Analysis in Special Education Settings

Anyone interested in pursuing ABA with a focus on special education needs at least a master’s degree to fully launch their career. Many positions also require prior experience and expertise in special education issues as well as licensing from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). While graduate degrees are required for many jobs, those with undergraduate degrees can seek assistant or support positions to test their interest in the field. Behavior analysts interested in working in the public education system should also be prepared to spend a lot of time working with children as well as teachers, parents and school district officials.

Preparing for a Career in ABA

Aside from the standard educational requirements, behavior analysts with an interest in special education should consider specializing in this area academically. Many programs offer the opportunity for students to direct their education towards areas of interest, including educational issues. Prospective ABA practitioners should also look for internship opportunities, preferably those involving education, to build their resume prior to graduation.

The needs and opportunities presented by special education have become an issue of national importance over the last few decades. While current legislation does not necessarily require it to be a part of public school programs, many districts rely on applied behavior analysis as a core component of their special education program.