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    An Introduction to Applied Behavior Analysis

    Teachers use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) principles to:

    • Provide effective individual and group instruction.

    • Manage classroom behavior.

    • Reduce individual behavior problems and teach replacement behaviors.

    • Teach basic communication and language skills.

    ABA is used to address behaviors in both general and special education settings.

    What is ABA?

    ABA is a scientific approach to behavior. Its principles are used to change and improve behaviors. The effectiveness of these principles has been confirmed by many experimental studies and can be applied in a variety of ways with different types of people – infants to adults.

    By analyzing the relationship between the antecedent (what happened before the behavior occurred), the behavior (what behavior actually occurred), and the consequence (what happened after the behavior occurred), educators or educational teams (teachers, principals, counselors, therapists) can begin to develop a comprehensive plan for changing behavior.

    An essential element of ABA involves analyzing the function of the behavior (the purpose the behavior serves). A behavior’s function can be categorized in two ways: to get something or to avoid something. Determining the function of the behavior is essential in designing an effective plan for behavior change. Knowing why a behavior is occurring helps educators choose an intervention that will eliminate or change that behavior.

    The following example illustrates the relationship between the antecedent, the behavior, the consequence, and the function:

    During math class, a teacher presents a new strategy and gives an assignment for students to complete independently (antecedent).

    David is having difficulty with the assignment, so he: a) Asks the teacher if he can use the bathroom, b) Tells the teacher he doesn’t feel well, or c) Punches the student next to him.


    The teacher responds to David’s behavior by: a) Sending him to the bathroom, b) Sending him to the nurse, or c) Sending him to the principal’s office.


    It can be hypothesized that avoiding a difficult task (in this case by leaving the classroom) is the function of David’s behavior. 

    How is ABA used in education?

    ABA principles and procedures can be used with all students to provide positive reinforcement, to teach and maintain appropriate behaviors, and to provide immediate feedback during instruction.

    ABA principles and procedures are also used to help students whose behaviors interfere with their learning or the learning of others. This involves identifying the problem behavior, observing and measuring the behavior, developing a comprehensive plan to change the behavior, and monitoring the behavior to make sure the plan is working.

    Identifying, Observing, and Measuring Behavior

    An educational team (for example, the student’s teacher, the principal, the guidance counselor, the school psychologist, the speech therapist) collects specific, observable, and measurable information regarding the problem behavior. To collect specific, observable, and measurable data, the team must define the behavior. For example, it would be difficult to collect reliable data on what might be described as “tired” or “lazy” behavior. Each team member may have a different idea of what “tired” or “lazy” behavior looks like. To be observable and measurable, the behavior must have a specific definition such as, “The student puts his head down on his desk and closes his eyes.” In this way, each team member can observe this behavior and measure how many times he puts his head down and the length of time he keeps his head down. The educational team collects observable and measurable information about the antecedent, behavior, consequence, and function of the problem behavior.

    Developing a Comprehensive Plan

    The team can then begin to develop a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan addresses all the component areas (antecedent, behavior, consequence, and function) and provides strategies for:

    • Managing the environment prior to the occurrence of the behavior.

    • Reinforcing appropriate behaviors and reducing inappropriate behaviors.

    • Teaching new skills.

    • Adapting instruction and student tasks for success.

    Monitoring the Student’s Behavior

    Once the plan has been implemented, the team monitors the student’s behavior by regularly collecting data. This data is recorded and presented on a graph to see whether the intervention is working (the student’s behavior is changing), or whether the plan needs an adjustment or another intervention.

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