Open Access Articles- Top Results for Applied behavior analysis

Applied behavior analysis

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is defined as the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.[1] Despite much confusion throughout the mental health community, ABA was previously called behavior modification but it revised as the earlier approach involved superimposing consequences to change behavior without determining the behavior-environment interactions first. Moreover, the current approach also seeks to emit replacements behaviors which serve the same function as the aberrant behaviors.[2][3][4] By functionally assessing the relationship between a targeted behavior and the environment as well as identifying antecedents and consequences, the methods of ABA can be used to change that behavior.[3]

Methods in applied behavior analysis range from validated intensive behavioral interventions—most notably utilized for children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)[5]—to basic research which investigates the rules by which humans adapt and maintain behavior. However, ABA contributes to a full range of areas including: HIV prevention,[6] conservation of natural resources,[7] education,[8] gerontology,[9] health and exercise,[10] organizational behavior management (i.e., industrial safety),[11] language acquisition,[12] littering,[13] medical procedures,[14] parenting,[15] psychotherapy, seatbelt use,[16] severe mental disorders,[17] sports,[18] substance abuse, and zoo management and care of animals.[19]



ABA is defined as an applied natural science devoted to developing and analyzing procedures that produce effective and beneficial changes in behavior.[1] It is one of the three fields of behavior analysis. The other two are radical behaviorism, or the philosophy of the science; and experimental analysis of behavior, or basic experimental research.[5] ABA is also based on operant and respondent conditioning and social learning theory. While radical behaviorism forms the conceptual piece for behavior analysis and acknowledges the presence of cognition and emotions, methodological behaviorism only recognized observable behaviors; the latter was the basis behind behavior modification throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Contrary to popular belief, behavior analysts emphasize that the science of behavior must be a natural science as opposed to a social science.[20] As such, behavior analysts focus on the observable relationship of behavior to the environment, including antecedents and consequences, without resort to "hypothetical constructs".[21]


Although deriving from a similar philosophy, behavior modification only changed behavior by superimposing consequential procedures; instead, ABA seeks to understand environmental contingencies.[2][3] More specifically, it analyzes the function of behavior, such as what prompts that behavior (the antecedent) as well as promoting replacement behaviors and consequential strategies.[4] Typically, ABA is based on data collection and assessments to accurately examine a behavior's function and to discover the procedures that will produce measurable behavioral changes.

Much of the beginnings of ABA can be traced to a group of faculty and researchers at the University of Washington including Don Baer, Sidney Bijou, Bill Hopkins, Jay Birnbrauer, Ivar Lovaas, Todd Risley, James Sherman, and Montrose Wolf.[22] In the 1960s, Baer, Hopkins, Risley, Sherman, and Wolf became faculty in the Department of Human Development and Family Life at the University of Kansas.[23] They and their colleagues began a concentrated effort at developing and perfecting the application of behavior analysis to address a wide variety of human problems. They also founded the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis in 1968 which publishes research examining the application of behavior analysis to socially relevant behavior.

ABA is a science used in a wide range of fields to change behavior with various subtypes, such as organizational behavior management, positive behavior support,[24][25][26] and clinical behavior analysis (including contingency management, acceptance and commitment therapy, and habit reversal training). Most of the time people use the subtype term early intensive behavioral intervention (including discrete trial teaching), a treatment procedure used for young children with autism, interchangeably with ABA. However, the latter is a distinct psychological science.[5]

Ole Ivar Løvaas is considered a grandfather of ABA and developed standardized teaching interventions based on those behavioral principals. Lovaas devoted nearly a half a century to groundbreaking research and practice aimed at improving the lives of children with autism and their families. In 1965, Lovaas published a series of articles that therapeutic approaches to autism. The first two articles presented his system for coding behaviors during direct observations and a pioneering investigation of superimposed antecedents and consequences that maintained a problem behavior.[27] The subsequent articles built upon these methods and reported the first demonstration of an effective way to teach nonverbal children to speak, a study on establishing social (secondary) reinforcers, a procedure for teaching children to imitate, and several studies on interventions to reduce life-threatening self-injury and aggression.

Lovaas was cited in his early career to use low dosages of electroshock therapy to children with extreme self injurious behavior.[27] In 1973, Lovaas published a long-term follow-up for the behavior modification intervention and was dismayed to find that most of the subjects had reverted to their pre-intervention behaviors. After these findings, Lovaas and his colleagues proposed several ways to improve outcomes such as starting intervention during the children's preschool years instead of later in childhood or adolescence, involving parents in the intervention, and implementing the intervention in the family's home rather than an institutional setting. Subsequent articles like the 1987 "Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children" reinforce this proposal of early and intensive intervention—without the use of aversives (such as electric shocks)—paired with continual therapy yields the most effective results for children with autism.[27] Lovaas highly believed that the support and involvement in parents applying therapy at home contributed to a higher success rate. Lovaas dedicated his life to the study of autism and was a strong advocate for people with autism even co-founding what is today the Autism Society of America.[27]


Baer, Wolf, and Risley's 1968 article[28] is still used as the standard description of ABA.[29] It describes the seven dimensions of ABA: application; a focus on behavior; the use of analysis; and its technological, conceptually systematic, effective, and general approach.


ABA focuses on areas that are of social significance. In doing this, behavior scientists must take into consideration more than just the short-term behavior change, but also look at how behavior changes can affect the consumer, those who are close to the consumer, and how any change will affect the interactions between the two.


ABA must be behavioral, i.e.: behavior itself must change, not just what the consumer says about the behavior. It is not the goal of the behavior scientists to get their consumers to stop complaining about behavior problems, but rather to change the problem behavior itself. In addition, behavior must be objectively measured. A behavior scientist cannot resort to the measurement of non-behavioral substitutes. (Obviously multidisciplinary work within behavior and psychology may include, for example, analysis of cognition or demographics and exploration of the individual as well, where experimental standards are maintained.)


ABA must be analytic, which means that the behavior analyst can control the behavior that is being changed by changing the control behavior. In the lab, this has been easy as the researcher can start and stop the behavior at will. However, in the applied situation, this is not always as easy, nor ethical, to do. According to Baer, Wolf, and Risley, this difficulty should not stop a science from upholding the strength of its principles.[28] As such, they referred to two designs that are best used in applied settings to demonstrate control and maintain ethical standards. These are the reversal and multiple baseline designs. The reversal design is one in which the behavior of choice is measured prior to any intervention. Once the pattern appears stable, an intervention is introduced, and behavior is measured. If there is a change in behavior, measurement continues until the new pattern of behavior appears stable. Then, the intervention is removed, or reduced, and the behavior is measured to see if it changes again. If the behavior scientist truly has demonstrated control of the behavior with the intervention, the behavior of interest should change with intervention changes. Here control may be better called "effect" or "influence", of behavior.


This means that if any other researcher were to read a description of the study, that researcher would be able to "replicate the application with the same results."[28] This means that the description must be very detailed and clear. Ambiguous descriptions do not qualify. Cooper et al. describe a good check for the technological characteristic: "have a person trained in applied behavior analysis carefully read the description and then act out the procedure in detail. If the person makes any mistakes, adds any operations, omits any steps, or has to ask any questions to clarify the written description then the description is not sufficiently technological and requires improvement."[30] This is where the experiment is repeatable.

Conceptually Systematic

A defining characteristic is in regard to the interventions used; and thus research must be conceptually systematic by only using procedures and interpreting results of these procedures in terms of the principles from which they were derived.[30]


ABA must be effective, which means that the application of these techniques changes the behavior it seeks to change. Specifically, it is not a theoretical importance of the variable, but rather the practical importance (social importance) that is essential.[28] If the application of behavioral techniques does not produce a large enough effect for practical value, then the application has failed.


ABA must be general, which means that it persists over time, in different environments, and spreads to other behaviors not directly treated by the intervention. In addition, continued change in specified behavior after intervention for that behavior has been withdrawn is also an example of generality. It is a goal to identify behavior stimuli with long-lasting and general effect.

Proposed additional characteristics

In 2005, Heward, et al. added their belief that the following five characteristics should be added:[31]

  • Accountable: Direct and frequent measurement enables analysts to detect their success and failures to make changes in an effort to increase successes while decreasing failures. ABA is a scientific approach in which analysts may guess but then critically test ideas, rather than "guess and guess again."[32] This constant revision of techniques, commitment to effectiveness and analysis of results leads to an accountable science.
  • Public: Applied behavior analysis is completely visible and public. This means that there are no explanations that cannot be observed, but of course these are each imposed. There are no mystical, metaphysical explanations, hidden treatment, or magic.[31] Thus, ABA produces results whose explanations are available to all of the public.
  • Doable: ABA has a pragmatic element in that implementors of interventions can consist of a variety of individuals, from teachers to the participants themselves. This does not mean that ABA requires one simply to learn a few procedures, but with the proper planning, it can effectively be implemented by almost everyone willing to invest the effort.[31]
  • Empowering: ABA provides tools to practitioners that allow them to effectively change behavior. By constantly providing visual feedback to the practitioner on the results of the intervention, this feature of ABA allows clinicians to assess their skill level and builds confidence in their technology.[33]
  • Optimistic: According to several leading authors, practitioners skilled in behavior analysis have genuine cause to be optimistic for the following reasons:
    • Individual behavior is largely determined by learning and cumulative effects of the environment, which itself is manipulable
    • Direct and continuous measurements enable practitioners to detect small improvements in performance that might have otherwise been missed
    • As a practitioner uses behavioral techniques with positive outcomes, the more they will become optimistic about future success prospects[31]
    • The literature provides many examples of success teaching individuals considered previously unteachable.



Main article: Behavior

Behavior is the activity of living organisms. Human behavior is the entire gamut of what people do including thinking and feeling.[34] Behavior can be determined by applying the Dead Man's test:

If a dead man can do it, it isn't behavior. And if a dead man can't do it, then it is behavior.[35]

This is obviously only a simple rubric.

Behavior is that portion of an organism's interaction with its environment that is characterized by detectable displacement in space through time of some part of the organism and that results in a measurable change in at least one aspect of the environment.[36] Often, the term behavior is used to reference a larger class of responses that share physical dimensions or function. In this instance, the term response indicates a single instance of that behavior.[37] If a group of responses have the same function, this group can be classified as a response class. Finally, when discussing a person's collection of behavior, repertoire is used. It can either pertain specifically to a set of response classes that are relevant to a particular situation, or it can refer to every behavior that a person can do.

Operant conditioning

Main article: Operant conditioning

Operant behavior is that which is selected by its antecedents and consequences. The conditioning of operant behavior is the result of reinforcement and punishment.[38] Operant conditioning applies to so-called "voluntary" responses, which an organism emits and increase or decrease in frequency as a function of the consequences which follow. The term operant emphasizes this point: the organism's behavior operates upon its environment to produce some type of desirable result. For example, operant conditioning is at work when we learn that toiling industriously can bring about a raise or that studying hard for a particular class will result in good grades, in positive reinforcement.

Respondent conditioning

All organisms respond in predictable ways to certain stimuli. These stimulus–response relations are called reflexes. The response component of the reflex is called respondent behavior. It is defined as behavior which is elicited by antecedent stimuli. Respondent conditioning (also called classical conditioning) is learning in which new stimuli acquire the ability to elicit respondents. This is done through stimulus–stimulus pairing, for example, the stimulus (smell of food) can elicit a person's salivation. By pairing that stimulus (smell) with another stimulus (e.g., a light), the second stimulus can obtain the function of the first stimulus, given that the predictive relationship between the two stimuli is maintained. This is also known as "Pavlov's dog's bell".


The environment is the entire constellation of stimuli in which an organism exists.[39] This includes events both inside and outside of an organism, but only real physical events are included. The environment consists of stimuli. A stimulus is an "energy change that affects an organism through its receptor cells."[39]

A stimulus can be described:

  • Topographically by its physical features.
  • Temporally by when they occur in respect to the behavior.
  • Functionally by their effect on behavior.


Main article: Reinforcement

Reinforcement is the most important principle of behavior[40] and a key element of most behavior change programs.[41] It is the process by which behavior is strengthened, if a behavior is followed closely in time by a stimulus and this results in an increase in the future frequency of that behavior. The addition of a stimulus following an event that serves as a reinforcer is termed positive reinforcement. If the removal of an event serves as a reinforcer, this is termed negative reinforcement.[42] There are multiple schedules of reinforcement that affect the future probability of behavior.


Punishment is a process by which a consequence immediately follows a behavior which decreases the future frequency of that behavior. As with reinforcement, a stimulus can be added (positive punishment) or removed (negative punishment). Broadly, there are three types of punishment: presentation of aversive stimuli (e.g., pain), response cost (removal of desirable stimuli as in monetary fines), and restriction of freedom (as in a 'time out').[43] Punishment in practice can often result in unwanted side effects.[44] Some other potential unwanted effects include resentment over being punished, attempts to escape the punishment, expression of pain and negative emotions associated with it, and recognition by the punished individual between the punishment and the person delivering it.


Extinction is the technical term to describe the procedure of withholding/discontinuing reinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior, resulting in the decrease of that behavior.[45] The behavior is then set to be extinguished (Cooper, et al.). Extinction procedures are often preferred over punishment procedures that are frequently deemed unethical and in many states prohibited. Nonetheless, extinction procedures must be implemented with utmost care by professionals, as they are generally associated with extinction bursts. An extinction burst is the temporary increase in the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of the behavior targeted for extinction.[46] Other characteristics of an extinction burst include a) extinction-produced aggression—the occurrence of an emotional response to an extinction procedure often manifested as aggression; and b) extinction-induced response variability—the occurrence of novel behaviors that did not typically occur prior to the extinction procedure. These novel behaviors are a core component of shaping procedures.

Discriminated operant and three-term contingency

In addition to a relation being made between behavior and its consequences, operant conditioning also establishes relations between antecedent conditions and behaviors. This differs from the S–R formulations (If-A-then-B), and replaces it with an AB-because-of-C formulation. In other words, the relation between a behavior (B) and its context (A) is because of consequences (C), more specifically, this relationship between AB because of C indicates that the relationship is established by prior consequences that have occurred in similar contexts.[47] This antecedent–behavior–consequence contingency is termed the three-term contingency. A behavior which occurs more frequently in the presence of an antecedent condition than in its absence is called a discriminated operant. The antecedent stimulus is called a discriminative stimulus (SD). The fact that the discriminated operant occurs only in the presence of the discriminative stimulus is an illustration of stimulus control.[48] More recently behavior analysts have been focusing on conditions that occur prior to the circumstances for the current behavior of concern that increased the likelihood of the behavior occurring or not occurring. These conditions have been referred to variously as "Setting Event", "Establishing Operations", and "Motivating Operations" by various researchers in their publications.

Verbal behavior

Main article: Verbal Behavior

B.F. Skinner's classification system of behavior analysis has been applied to treatment of a host of communication disorders.[49] Skinner's system includes:

  • Tact (psychology) – a verbal response evoked by a non-verbal antecedent and maintained by generalized conditioned reinforcement.
  • Mand (psychology) – behavior under control of motivating operations maintained by a characteristic reinforcer.
  • Intraverbals – verbal behavior for which the relevant antecedent stimulus was other verbal behavior, but which does not share the response topography of that prior verbal stimulus (e.g., responding to another speaker's question).
  • Autoclitic – secondary verbal behavior which alters the effect of primary verbal behavior on the listener. Examples involve quantification, grammar, and qualifying statements (e.g., the differential effects of "I think..." vs. "I know...")

For assessment of verbal behavior from Skinner's system see Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills.

Measuring behavior

When measuring behavior, there are both dimensions of behavior and quantifiable measures of behavior. In applied behavior analysis, the quantifiable measures are a derivative of the dimensions. These dimensions are repeatability, temporal extent, and temporal locus.[50]


Response classes occur repeatedly throughout time—i.e., how many times the behavior occurs.

  • Count is the number of occurrences in behavior.
  • Rate/frequency is the number of instances of behavior per unit of time.
  • Celeration is the measure of how the rate changes over time.

Temporal extent

This dimension indicates that each instance of behavior occupies some amount of time—i.e., how long the behavior occurs.

  • Duration is the amount of time in which the behavior occurs.

Temporal locus

Each instance of behavior occurs at a specific point in time—i.e., when the behavior occurs.

  • Response latency is the measure of elapsed time between the onset of a stimulus and the initiation of the response.
  • Interresponse time is the amount of time that occurs between two consecutive instances of a response class.

Derivative measures

Derivative measures are unrelated to specific dimensions:

  • Percentage is the ratio formed by combining the same dimensional quantities.
  • Trials-to-criterion are the number of response opportunities needed to achieve a predetermined level of performance.

Analyzing behavior change

Experimental control

In applied behavior analysis, all experiments should include the following:[51]

  • At least one participant
  • At least one behavior (dependent variable)
  • At least one setting
  • A system for measuring the behavior and ongoing visual analysis of data
  • At least one treatment or intervention condition
  • Manipulations of the independent variable so that its effects on the dependent variable may be quantitatively or qualitatively analyzed
  • An intervention that will benefit the participant in some way[52]

Functional analysis (psychology)

History of functional analysis

Prior to the seminal article on functional analytic methodology for aberrant behaviors, behavior analysts used the behavioral technology available to them at the time. Instead of treating the function of the disruptive behavior, behavior analysts would instead use potent consequences to manage disruptive behaviors. For example, in the past to decrease self-injurious behavior in an individual, behavior analysts may have delivered an aversive stimulus contingent on the response (Iwata, 1988). This type of intervention was successful to the individual, but it was not uncommon to see other variations of aberrant behavior begin to appear. Applied behavior analysis as a field favors reinforcement based interventions over punishment based intervention, but at the time the behavioral technology was not advanced enough and the individuals needing intervention had a right to an effective treatment (Van Houten et al., 1988).

In 1977, Edward Carr published a paper on potential hypotheses for the occurrence and maintenance of self-injurious behaviors. This paper laid out the initial groundwork for a functional analysis of aberrant behaviors. In the paper, Carr described five potential causes for self-injurious behaviors that included (1) positive social reinforcement contingent on the response, (2) negative reinforcement in the form of removal of an aversive stimulus contingent on the response, (3) the response produced stimuli possessed reinforcing qualities (automatic reinforcement), (4) the behavior was a byproduct of an underlying psychological condition, and (5) psychodynamic hypothesis in which the behavior was an attempt to reduce guilt. Throughout the paper, Carr cited recent research to support the first three hypotheses, and disprove the latter two hypotheses, but no formal experiment was conducted to determine the controlling variables of the problem behavior.

In 1982, Iwata and colleagues conducted the first experimental analysis of the maintaining variables for self-injurious behavior. In the paper, the researchers alternated between specific conditions to examine whether or not the behavior occurred under specific environmental conditions. Through direct manipulation of the environment, the researchers could accurately identify the controlling variables of the aberrant behavior, and provide interventions that targeted the functional relationship between the behavior and the environment. Since this seminal article was published, a wide range of research has been published in the area of functional analyses of aberrant behaviors. The methodology has since become the gold standard in assessment and treatment of aberrant behaviors.

Functional behavior assessment (FBA)

Functional assessment of behavior provides hypotheses about the relationships between specific environmental events and behaviors. Decades of research have established that both desirable and undesirable behaviors are learned and maintained through interactions with the social and physical environment. Functional Behavior Assessments are used to identify controlling variables for challenging behaviors as the basis for intervention efforts designed to decrease the occurrence of these behaviors.

Functions of Behavior

Behavior serves two major functions for an individual: (1) to obtain desired events, or (2) to escape/avoid undesired events. Put another way, individuals engage in behavior to get something or to get out of something. When trying to identify the function of a behavior, it is often helpful to think, “What purpose is this behavior serving the individual.” Described below are the common functions of behavior.

Obtain Desired Events (Positive Reinforcement)

Obtain Socially Mediated Events

Access to Attention (Positive Reinforcement: Social): The individual engages in the behavior to obtain attention from another person. For example, a child throws a toy because it characteristically results in mom's attention. (If this behavior results in mom looking at child and giving him lots of attention—even if she's saying "NO"—he will be more likely to engage in the same behavior in the future to get mom's attention.) Common forms of attention include, but are not limited to, hugs, kisses, reprimands, frowns, smiles, etc.

Access to Tangibles (Positive Reinforcement: Tangible/Activity): The individual engages in the behavior to obtain a specific item or engage in a specific activity from another person. For example, a child hits mom because s/he wants the toy mom is holding. (If this behavior results in mom giving the child the toy, s/he will be more likely to engage in the same behavior in the future to get mom's attention.) Common forms of tangible items include, but are not limited to, food, toys, movies, video games, etc.

Obtain Internal Stimulation

Automatic Positive Reinforcement: The individual engages in the behavior because the response-produced stimulation possesses reinforcing characteristics. Said another way, engaging in the behavior produces reinforcing internal stimulation unique to the specific context. For example, a child hits his/her eyes because it produces the specific internal stimulation of various colors and effects. Another example includes a child spinning a bowl on a table to produce the specific auditory stimulation unique to that object. Common forms of automatic stimulation include, but are not limited to, auditory stimulation, visual stimulation, endorphin release, etc.

Escape/Avoid Undesirable Events (Negative Reinforcement)

Escape/Avoid Socially Mediated Events

Escape/Removal of Attention: The individual engages in the behavior to escape aversive socially mediated attention. Put another way, social situations that are aversive to the child are removed contingent on the behavior occurring. For example, a child hits the teacher to avoid talking in front of the class. Common forms of aversive social situations include, but are not limited to, smiles, hugs, frowns, corrections, group settings, etc.

Escape/Removal of Tasks or Activities: The Individual engages in the behavior to escape aversive tasks or demands. For example, when a child is told to take a bath he begins to cry, and his mother tells him he no longer has to take a bath. Another example includes a teacher telling a student to complete a series of math problems, to which the student flips the desk and is sent to the principal’s office. Being sent to the principals office reinforced the behavior of flipping the desk because it allowed the child to escape the aversive activity of completing math problems. Common forms of aversive demands/activities include, but are not limited to, difficult tasks, changes in routines, unpredictability, novel tasks, etc.

Escape/Avoid Specific Internal Stimulation

Automatic Negative Reinforcement: The individual engages in the behavior because it produces a decrease in aversive internal stimulation. Put another way, something aversive is occurring beneath the skin and engaging in the behavior decreases the level of discomfort. For example, a child bangs his head against the wall to decrease the pain experienced from a toothache. Another example includes a child scratching his arm to decrease the level of itchiness experiences from a bug bite. Common forms of aversive automatic stimulation include sinus pain, itching, hunger, etc.

Function Versus Topography

As previously stated function refers to the effect the behavior produces on the environment. The actual form of the behavior is referred to the topography. Different behaviors may serve the same function, thus describing one limitation of treating behaviors based on form alone. For example, a child may scream, hit, and cry to obtain attention from his mother. What the behavior looks like often reveals little useful information about the conditions that account for it. However, identifying the conditions that account for a behavior, suggests what conditions need to be altered to change the behavior. Therefore, assessment of function of a behavior can yield useful information with respect to intervention strategies that are likely to be effective.

Method of Identifying Functions of Behavior

FBA methods can be classified into three types: • Indirect assessment • Descriptive assessment • Functional (experimental) analysis

Indirect FBA

This method utilizes structured interviews, checklists, rating scales, or questionnaires to obtain information from persons who are familiar with the person exhibiting the behavior to identify possible conditions or events in the natural environment that correlate with the problem behavior. They are referred to as "indirect" because they do not involve direct observation of the behavior, but rather they solicit information based on others' recollections of the behavior. This form of assessment typically yields the least reliable information about the function of behavior, but can provide insight as to possible functions of the behavior to be tested in the future, the form of the behaviors (e.g. screaming, hitting, etc.), and environments in which the behavior typically occurs (e.g. school, home, etc.). This type of assessment should be performed as the initial step of any Functional Behavior Assessment to gather relevant information to complete more direct assessments.

Descriptive FBA

Unlike the indirect methods of FBAs, descriptive functional behavior assessment utilizes direct observation of behavior. These observations occur in the environment in which the behavior naturally occurs (e.g. school, home, etc.) therefore there is no direct manipulation of the environment. The most common form of descriptive assessment involves recording the antecedents and consequences that naturally occur when the individual emits the behavior. This is referred to as ABC data collection, in which (A) represents the common antecedent, (B) represents the behavior of interest, and (C) represents the immediate consequences that occur following the behavior. ABC data collection is used to identify the naturally occurring consequences delivered in the environment in which the behavior occurs. ABC data collection can be conducted by a wide array of individuals who have received appropriate training on how to record the data. Another form of descriptive FBA is called a scatterplot. In this assessment, staff record the time and setting in which the behavior of interest occurs over a series of days. The data are plotted on a visual scale to indicate whether there are any patterns in the behavior. For example, does the behavior occur more frequently during math instruction than it does during lunchtime? Although this assessment does not expose the staff member to the consequences of the behavior, it can be used to identify some of the antecedent conditions that typically surround the behavior of interest.

Functional (Experimental) Analysis

A functional analysis is the most direct form of Functional Behavior Assessments in which specific antecedents and consequences are systematically manipulated to test their separate effects on the behavior of interest. Each manipulation of the antecedent and consequence in a particular situation is referred to a condition. In a functional analysis, conditions are typically alternated between quite rapidly independent of responding to test the different functions of behavior. When data paths are elevated above the control condition (described below) it can be said that there is a functional relation between that condition and the behavior of interest. Below, common examples of experimental conditions are described. A standard functional analysis normally has four conditions (three test conditions and one control):


In this condition, the experimenter gives the individual moderately preferred items and instructs them to go play. After that initial instruction, the experimenter pretends to act busy and ignores all bids for attention from the individual. If the individual engages in the behavior of interest, the experimenter provides the individual with attention (commonly in the form of a reprimand). Behaviors that occur more frequently in this condition can be said to be attention maintained.


In this condition, the experimenter instructs the individual that it is time to work. After the initial instruction, the experimenter delivers a series of demands that the individual is typically required to complete (e.g. math problems, cleaning up, etc.). If the individual engages in the behavior of interest, the demand is removed and the child is allowed to take a break. Behaviors that occur more frequently in this condition can be said to be escape maintained.


In this condition, the child is left alone with a variety of items to engage with. If the child engages in the behavior of interest, no programmed consequences are delivered. Behaviors that occur more frequently in this condition can be said to be automatically maintained.

Control (Play)

In this condition, the child is allowed to engage with a variety of items during the session. No demands are placed on the child throughout the duration of the session. The experimenter provides attention to the individual throughout the session on any behavior that is not the target behavior. If the target behavior occurs, the experimenter removes attention until the behavior has subsided. This session is meant to act as a control condition, meaning that the environment is enriched for the purpose of the behavior not occurring. Said another way, by meeting environmental needs for all possible functions, the individual is not likely to engage in the behavior of interest. This condition is used as a comparison to the other conditions. Any condition that is elevated to a large degree form the control condition, shows a higher degree experimental control indicating the functional relationship between the specific environmental conditions and the behavior of interest.

Conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment

Functional Behavior Assessments are rarely limited to only one of the methodologies described above. The most common, and most preferred, method of identifying the function of behavior can be seen as a four part processes. 1) The gathering of information via indirect and descriptive assessment. 2) Interpretation of information from indirect and descriptive assessment and formulation of a hypothesis about the purpose of problem behavior. 3) Testing of a hypothesis using a functional analysis. 4) Developing intervention options based on the function of problem behavior.

Technologies discovered through ABA research

Task analysis

Task analysis is a process in which a task is analyzed into its component parts so that those parts can be taught through the use of chaining: forward chaining, backward chaining and total task presentation. Task analysis has been used in organizational behavior management, a behavior analytic approach to changing organizations.[53] Behavioral scripts often emerge from a task analysis.[54][55] Bergan conducted a task analysis of the behavioral consultation relationship[56] and Thomas Kratochwill developed a training program based on teaching Bergan's skills.[57] A similar approach was used for the development of microskills training for counselors.[58][59][60] Ivey would later call this "behaviorist" phase a very productive one[61] and the skills-based approach came to dominate counselor training during 1970–90.[62] Task analysis was also used in determining the skills needed to access a career.[63] In education, Englemann (1968) used task analysis as part of the methods to design the Direct Instruction curriculum.[64]


Main article: Chaining

The skill to be learned is broken down into small units for easy learning. For example, a person learning to brush teeth independently may start with learning to unscrew the toothpaste cap. Once they have learned this, the next step may be squeezing the tube, etc.[65][66]

For problem behavior, chains can also be analyzed and the chain can be disrupted to prevent the problem behavior.[67] Some behavior therapies, such as dialectical behavior therapy, make extensive use of behavior chain analysis.[68]


A prompt is a cue or assistance to encourage the desired response from an individual.[69] Prompts are often categorized into a prompt hierarchy from most intrusive to least intrusive. There is some controversy about what is considered most intrusive: physically intrusive versus hardest prompt to fade (i.e., verbal).[70] In a faultless learning approach, prompts are given in a most-to-least sequence and faded systematically to ensure the individual experiences a high level of success.[71] There may be instances in which a least-to-most prompt method is preferred. Prompts are faded systematically and as quickly as possible to avoid prompt dependency. The goal of teaching using prompts would be to fade prompts towards independence, so that no prompts are needed for the individual to perform the desired behavior.[72][73]

Types of prompts:

  • Vocal prompts: Utilizing a vocalization to indicate the desired response.
  • Visual prompts: A visual cue or picture.
  • Gestural prompts: Utilizing a physical gesture to indicate the desired response.
  • Positional prompt: The target item is placed closer to the individual.
  • Modeling: Modeling the desired response for the student. This type of prompt is best suited for individuals who learn through imitation and can attend to a model.
  • Physical prompts: Physically manipulating the individual to produce the desired response. There are many degrees of physical prompts. The most intrusive being hand-over-hand, and the least intrusive being a slight tap to initiate movement.[71]

This is not an exhaustive list of all possible prompts. When using prompts to systematically teach a skill, not all prompts need to be used in the hierarchy; prompts are chosen based on which ones are most effective for a particular individual.


The overall goal is for an individual to eventually not need prompts. As an individual gains mastery of a skill at a particular prompt level, the prompt is faded to a less intrusive prompt. This ensures that the individual does not become overly dependent on a particular prompt when learning a new behavior or skill.

Thinning a reinforcement schedule

Thinning is often confused with fading. Fading refers to a prompt being removed, where thinning refers to the spacing of a reinforcement schedule getting larger.[74] Some support exists that a 30% decrease in reinforcement can be an efficient way to thin.[75] Schedule thinning is often an important and neglected issue in contingency management and token economy systems, especially when developed by unqualified practitioners (see professional practice of behavior analysis).[76]


Generalization is the expansion of a student's performance ability beyond the initial conditions set for acquisition of a skill.[77] Generalization can occur across people, places, and materials used for teaching. For example, once a skill is learned in one setting, with a particular instructor, and with specific materials, the skill is taught in more general settings with more variation from the initial acquisition phase. For example, if a student has successfully mastered learning colors at the table, the teacher may take the student around the house or his school and then generalize the skill in these more natural environments with other materials. Behavior analysts have spent considerable amount of time studying factors that lead to generalization.[78]


Main article: Shaping (psychology)

Shaping involves gradually modifying the existing behavior into the desired behavior. If the student engages with a dog by hitting it, then he or she could have their behavior shaped by reinforcing interactions in which he or she touches the dog more gently. Over many interactions, successful shaping would replace the hitting behavior with patting or other gentler behavior. Shaping is based on a behavior analyst's thorough knowledge of operant conditioning principles and extinction. Recent efforts to teach shaping have used simulated computer tasks.[79]

One teaching technique found to be effective with some students, particularly children, is the use of video modeling (the use of taped sequences as exemplars of behavior). It can be used by therapists to assist in the acquisition of both verbal and motor responses, in some cases for long chains of behavior.[80][81]

Interventions based on an FBA

Critical to behavior analytic interventions is the concept of a systematic behavioral case formulation with a functional behavioral assessment or analysis at the core.[82][83] This approach should apply a behavior analytic theory of change (see Behavioral change theories). This formulation should include a thorough functional assessment, a skills assessment, a sequential analysis (behavior chain analysis), an ecological assessment, a look at existing evidenced-based behavioral models for the problem behavior (such as Fordyce's model of chronic pain)[84] and then a treatment plan based on how environmental factors influence behavior. Some argue that behavior analytic case formulation can be improved with an assessment of rules and rule-governed behavior.[85][86][87] Some of the interventions that result from this type of conceptualization involve training specific communication skills to replace the problem behaviors as well as specific setting, antecedent, behavior, and consequence strategies.[88]

Efficacy in autism

ABA-based techniques are often used to treat autism, so much so that ABA itself is often mistakenly considered to be synonymous with therapy for autism.[5] ABA for autism may be limited by diagnostic severity and IQ.[89][90] The most influential and widely cited review of the literature regarding efficacy of treatments for Autism is the National Research Council's book Educating Children with Autism (2001) which concluded that ABA was the best research supported and most effective treatment for the main characteristics of Autism. Some critics{who} claimed that the NRC's report was an inside job by behavior analysts but there were no board certified behavior analysts on the panel (which did include physicians, speech pathologists, educators, psychologists, and others). Recent reviews of the efficacy of ABA-based techniques in autism include:

  • A 2007 clinical report of the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that the benefit of ABA-based interventions in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) "has been well documented" and that "children who receive early intensive behavioral treatment have been shown to make substantial, sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behavior as well as some measures of social behavior."[91]
  • Researchers from the MIND Institute published an evidence-based review of comprehensive treatment approaches in 2008. On the basis of "the strength of the findings from the four best-designed, controlled studies," they were of the opinion that one ABA-based approach (the Lovaas technique created by Ole Ivar Løvaas) is "well-established" for improving intellectual performance of young children with ASD.[92]
  • A 2009 review of psycho-educational interventions for children with autism whose mean age was six years or less at intake found that five high-quality ("Level 1" or "Level 2") studies assessed ABA-based treatments. On the basis of these and other studies, the author concluded that ABA is "well-established" and is "demonstrated effective in enhancing global functioning in pre-school children with autism when treatment is intensive and carried out by trained therapists."[93]
  • A 2009 paper included a descriptive analysis, an effect size analysis, and a meta-analysis of 13 reports published from 1987 to 2007 of early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI, a form of ABA-based treatment with origins in the Lovaas technique) for autism. It determined that EIBI's effect sizes were "generally positive" for IQ, adaptive behavior, expressive language, and receptive language. The paper did note limitations of its findings including the lack of published comparisons between EIBI and other "empirically validated treatment programs."[94]
  • In a 2009 systematic review of 11 studies published from 1987 to 2007, the researchers wrote "there is strong evidence that EIBI is effective for some, but not all, children with autism spectrum disorders, and there is wide variability in response to treatment." Furthermore, any improvements are likely to be greatest in the first year of intervention.[95]
  • A 2009 meta-analysis of nine studies published from 1987 to 2007 concluded that EIBI has a "large" effect on full-scale intelligence and a "moderate" effect on adaptive behavior in autistic children.[96]
  • In 2011, investigators from Vanderbilt University under contract with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality performed a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on ABA-based and other therapies for autism spectrum disorders; the ABA-based therapies included the UCLA/Lovaas method and the Early Start Denver Model (the latter developed by Sally Rogers and Geraldine Dawson).[97] They concluded that "both approaches were associated with ... improvements in cognitive performance, language skills, and adaptive behavior skills."[97]:ES-9 However, they also concluded that "the strength of evidence ... is low," "many children continue to display prominent areas of impairment," "subgroups may account for a majority of the change," there is "little evidence of practical effectiveness or feasibility beyond research studies," and the published studies "used small samples, different treatment approaches and duration, and different outcome measurements."[97]:ES-10

A 2009 systematic review and meta-analysis by Spreckley and Boyd of four 2000–2007 studies (involving a total of 76 children) came to different conclusions than the aforementioned reviews.[98] Spreckley and Boyd reported that applied behavior intervention (ABI), another name for EIBI, did not significantly improve outcomes compared with standard care of preschool children with ASD in the areas of cognitive outcome, expressive language, receptive language, and adaptive behavior.[98] In a letter to the editor, however, authors of the four studies meta-analyzed claimed that Spreckley and Boyd had misinterpreted one study comparing two forms of ABI with each other as a comparison of ABI with standard care, which erroneously decreased the observed efficacy of ABI.[99] Furthermore, the four studies' authors raised the possibility that Spreckley and Boyd had excluded some other studies unnecessarily, and that including such studies could have led to a more favorable evaluation of ABI.[99] Spreckley, Boyd, and the four studies' authors did agree that large multi-site randomized trials are needed to improve the understanding of ABA's efficacy in autism.[99]

Major journals

Applied behavior analysts publish in many journals. Some of the ones considered core journals to behavior analysis are:

  • Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
  • Journal of Organizational Behavior Management
  • Journal of Behavioral Education
  • Journal of the Analysis of Verbal Behavior
  • The Behavior Analyst Today[100]
  • The Behavior Analyst
  • The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis'[100]
  • Journal of Early and Intensive Behavioral Interventions[100]
  • The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy[100]
  • The Journal of Behavioral Assessment and Intervention in Children[100]
  • The Behavioral Development Bulletin[100]
  • The Journal of Precision Teaching and Standard Celeration
  • Behavior and Social Issues[101]
  • Journal of Behavior Analysis of Sports, Health, Fitness, and Behavioral Medicine[100]
  • Journal of Behavior Analysis of Offender and Victim: Treatment and Prevention[100]
  • Behavioral Health and Medicine[100]
  • Behavior Therapy
  • Behavior and Philosophy[102]

See also


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Further reading

  • Cooper, J.O.; Heron, T.E.; Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-142113-1. 
  • Steege, M.W.; Mace, F.C.; Perry, L.; Longenecker, H. (2007). "Applied behavior analysis: beyond discrete trial teaching". Psychol Schools 44 (1): 91–99. doi:10.1002/pits.20208. 
  • Geraldine Dawson — co-developer of Early Start Denver Model and Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks
  • Mayer, G. Roy; Sulzer-Azaroff, Beth; Wallace, Michele (2011). Behavior Analysis for Lasting Change (2/E ed.). Sloan. ISBN 978-1-59738-032-4. 
  • Catania, A. Charles (2007). Learning. Sloan. ISBN 1-59738-007-5. 

External links