Different Strokes: Using ABA to Teach Children Skills
Many years ago, professionals assumed that children with significant developmental disabilities were incapable of learning. As a result of extensive research and practical experience, we now understand that is not true: all children can develop skills to effectively express their needs and live fulfilling lives. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) provides the technical foundation for effective instruction, and its principles may be applied in a variety of ways. This article will clarify what ABA actually is, how its principles can be used across circumstances, and how to determine what approach is right for you.
What is ABA, really?
ABA is a set of principles based on the science of human behavior. ABA principles can be used to arrange environments to support children’s learning and development. ABA is applied, behavioral, and analytic.
Applied means that goals must be socially significant, in other words achieving them will improve the children’s and families’ lives. Behavior change will also be maintained over time and across people, settings, and situations. ABA principles may be applied in a variety of ways, provided that they adhere to the foundations of the science of human behavior.
Behavioral means that we focus on what children say or do, rather than making assumptions about how they are thinking and feeling. Behavior is defined objectively so that other people can recognize when it is occurring. Behavioral strategies are also outlined in detail, allowing others to understand exactly what is to be done and can be consistent in their approach.
Analytic means that we do not assume that “one size fits all” in ABA. Interventions are selected based on data, and those data provide a clear understanding of behavior patterns and circumstances that may be contributing to behavior. Behavioral procedures are adapted based on data collected. Behavior changes are tracked to ensure that the interventions are effective and that children are making adequate and efficient progress.
ABA is not synonymous with a specific type of instruction or teaching. Although the term ABA is often used to describe instruction using discrete trials, the principles of ABA can be used to guide instruction using a variety of formats, across a range of settings and situations, and with many different types of goals. ABA is not a rigid set of practices. The principles of ABA should be individualized to support the learning and development needs of each child and can be used to design and implement effective and efficient instruction. Instructional practices in ABA focus on preventing challenging behaviors, teaching functional skills, and supporting children’s independence and engagement in typical social and daily living routines.
How can ABA be applied?
Instruction based on the principles of ABA can be viewed as a continuum, with varying approaches based on the setting, goals, and children’s learning needs. It should be planned and implemented to ensure that children receive sufficient learning opportunities and that the approach is producing meaningful behavior change.
Learning trials consist of an antecedent (or prompt) that cues the child to use the behavior, the behavior itself (goal or skill to be developed), and a consequence (to reinforce or correct the behavior) that gives the child feedback related to the behavior. The antecedent can be something that typically occurs in the environment (e.g., lights on indicating that it is time to get up in the morning) or an adult provided prompt (e.g., pointing to an item or providing an instruction). The consequences can be praise, small items or activities, or other feedback. These learning trials can be delivered on a continuum from repeated 1:1 trials in a controlled situation to those that are fully embedded in natural activities.
The continuum might look like the following:
- The adult delivers repeated trials one-on-one with the child. The adult sets up a structured learning situation with few distractions and delivers multiple, consecutive trials (i.e., antecedent – behavior – consequence) to teach different responses.
- The adult delivers embedded trials one-on-one. The adult sets up an engaging activity in which the child is playing with toys or materials. The adult delivers multiple trials spaced across the activity.
- The adult delivers repeated trials in a small group (e.g., with siblings or peers). The adult sets up a structured learning environment with few distractions and delivers multiple trials for each child. The benefit of this approach is that children learn from one another.
- The adult delivers embedded trials in a small group. The adult sets up an engaging activity in which the children are playing with toys or materials. The adult delivers multiple trials spaced across the activity.
- The adult delivers repeated trials in during typical daily routines (e.g., mealtimes, play activities). The adult delivers multiple trials for each child. The benefit of this approach is that the children are learning skills in the situations in which they might use them.
- The adult delivers embedded trials during daily routines (e.g., mealtimes, play activities). The adult delivers multiple trials spaced across the activity for each child.
Which approach should we use?
As we have emphasized throughout this article, ABA principles may be used in a variety of ways to help children learn, but how do we determine what is the right approach? There are at least four things that should be considered:
Characteristics and needs of the child.
Does the child pick up skills relatively quickly, even with distractions? Or does the child need quiet, controlled situations to learn? How much structure and practice does the child typically require?
Setting characteristics and demands
In what home and/or community environments are the skills needed? What aspects of the settings might help or interfere with instruction? What organization would be needed to teach there? What other demands might make teaching difficult?
Resources and skills of implementers
How much time can the adults teaching the skills put aside for teaching? How complex do the teaching process and procedures need to be? What knowledge and experience do the teachers have?
Specific skills being taught
When, where and how would the particular skills best be taught? For example, academic and basic communication skills might be learned more efficiently away from distractions and through repeated practice. Social and daily living skills, however, may be best instructed where, when, and with whom they are needed. Taking these issues into consideration, it may be that a “best of both worlds” approach makes good sense for most children and families. Skills may be taught with natural routines and reinforced with additional practice. It is essential to view applying ABA principles not as a set of rigid procedures, but instead as a multi-fa ceted continuum tailored to the needs of children and family lives.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “ Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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- Maximum Potential Kids Provides Affordable ABA Training for Schools Districts
- Parenting with PBS: Resolving Children’s Behavior Problems More Effectively and Efficiently
This post originally appeared on our September/October 2019 Magazine