What is it?
The Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) approach teaches social, motor, and verbal behaviors as well as reasoning skills (1). ABA treatment is especially useful in teaching behaviors to children with autism who may otherwise not "pick up" these behaviors on their own as other children would. The ABA approach can be used by a parent, counselor, or certified behavior analyst.
ABA uses careful behavioral observation and positive reinforcement or prompting to teach each step of a behavior (2). A child’s behavior is reinforced with a reward when he or she performs each of the steps correctly. Undesirable behaviors, or those that interfere with learning and social skills, are watched closely. The goal is to determine what happens to trigger a behavior, and what happens after that behavior that seems to reinforce the behavior. The idea is to remove these triggers and reinforcers from the child’s environment. New reinforcers are then used to teach the child a different behavior in response to the same trigger (3).
ABA treatment can include any of several established teaching tools: discrete trial training, incidental teaching, pivotal response training, fluency building, and verbal behavior (VB).
In discrete trial training, an ABA practitioner gives a clear instruction about a desired behavior (e.g., “Pick up the paper.”); if the child responds correctly, the behavior is reinforced (e.g., “Great job! Have a sticker.”). If the child doesn’t respond correctly, the practitioner gives a gentle prompt (e.g., places child’s hand over the paper). The hope is that the child will eventually learn to generalize the correct response (4,5).
Pivotal response training uses ABA techniques to target crucial skills that are important (or pivotal) for many other skills. Thus, if the child improves on one of these pivotal skills, improvements are seen in a wide variety of behaviors that were not specifically trained. The idea is that this approach can help the child generalize behaviors from a therapy setting to everyday settings (4, 6, 7).
Incidental teaching uses the same ideas as discrete trial training, except the goal is to teach behaviors and concepts throughout a child’s day-to-day experience, rather than focusing on a specific behavior (1, 7).
In fluency building, the practitioner helps the child build up a complex behavior by teaching each element of that behavior until it is automatic or "fluent," using the ABA approach of behavioral observation, reinforcement, and prompting. Then, the more complex behavior can be built from each of these fluent elements (8, 9).
Finally, an ABA-related approach for teaching language and communication is called "verbal behavior" or VB for short (10). In VB, the practitioner analyzes the child’s language skills, then teaches and reinforces more useful and complex language skills (11).