ABA therapists seek to teach new skills and modify behaviors that are interfering with learning or quality of life. There are many therapeutic techniques used in ABA. We’ll review some of the most common therapy techniques that you may encounter, to give you some familiarity with the term and how you may observe it applied in your child’s therapy sessions.
Each child’s treatment is individualized though, so it’s important to note that not every child’s therapy program will utilize each of these techniques.
If you have questions about the particular ABA therapy techniques used in your child’s treatment, it’s best to consult their BCBA or case supervisor.
#1. Positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is at the core of behavior analysis. We use positive reinforcement to increase socially significant behaviors such as adaptive communication skills, self-help skills, and more. Positive reinforcement occurs when something is added following a specific behavior, resulting in an increase in that behavior moving forward. Positive reinforcement may be used in ABA therapy for any skill that we want to see occurring more often.
Positive reinforcement is the process of adding an item or stimulus following a particular behavior, resulting in an increased likelihood of that behavior in the future. A reinforcer can technically be anything-any stimulus or environmental change. Positive reinforcement may occur through social attention or interaction, via access to a tangible item, or through sensory experiences. Everyone is motivated by different things, so reinforcers are highly individualized.
Consider this example of positive reinforcement, for a child who is motivated by attention and praise. Imagine this child is working with their behavior technician on independent dressing skills. The behavior tech is teaching the child to zip their coat. Through assistive prompts, the child is able to engage the zipper and zip it up. The behavior technician immediately begins praising the child and giving high-5s. They might say “wow, you zipped your coat. Awesome job!” If this added stimulus immediately following the behavior (praise and a high-5s) results in an increase in the future occurrences of zipping, then the behavior was positively reinforced.
It is important to note that positive reinforcement is not simply providing access to “good things”. Providing praise or tangible items may or may not result in the child demonstrating that skill more often. In order to be considered positive reinforcement, it must result in an increase in the behavior of interest.
#2. Negative reinforcement
Negative reinforcement is another ABA principle that can be quite powerful. Consider when you are experiencing an aversive situation-something that is annoying, frustrating, painful, or otherwise unpleasant. Perhaps you have a killer headache. You might take pain medication to eliminate the headache. If the medication effectively eliminates (or reduces) the headache, you may be more likely to take that medication next time you have a headache. This increased likelihood of taking that pain medication is the result of negative reinforcement.
Children with autism may struggle to communicate aversive stimuli. A child who is feeling overwhelmed with demands placed on them or one who may be feeling overstimulated, may react by screaming, crying, running away, or other behaviors that express their displeasure.
If these behaviors result in the aversive stimuli being removed, then they may be more likely to engage in these behaviors in the future. This indicates negative reinforcement has occurred.
ABA therapists focus on teaching children more adaptive behaviors to allow them to effectively escape the aversive stimuli. For example, they might train a child to request a break from demands or request sensory modifications such as noise-canceling headphones.
#3. A-B-C Analysis
Behaviorists know that behavior is never random. Every behavior has a reason, also referred to as a function. Assessing the function of a child’s behavior is an important step before we’re able to effectively address the behavior through an individualized behavior intervention plan. One method for identifying a child’s behavioral function is to record ABC data.
ABC stands for antecedent, behavior, and consequence.
Antecedent: What occurs right before a behavior.
Example: A mother tells her son “come sit down for dinner.”
Behavior: What the behavior looks like.
Example: The child screams and runs down the hall.
Consequence: What happens after the behavior.
Example: The mother repeats the instruction and waits for him to sit down.
ABC data allows us to see trends in the antecedents and consequences. This information guides behavior analysts in assessing the function of the behavior.
Sometimes ABA professionals may ask parents or caregivers to record ABC data on behaviors that are occurring outside of sessions. This information may be helpful in developing individualized strategies for modifying behavior. The main thing to keep in mind is to be objective and straightforward. I.e. An antecedent might be “mom told Johnny no”. It wouldn’t be “Johnny was mad at mom”. He may have been mad, however, we don’t make that assumption.
In recording ABC data, we simply focus on observable and measurable behaviors.
#4. Discrete trial training (DTT)
Discrete trial training/teaching (DTT) is one method of teaching new skills. DTT is often thought of as rotely answering questions at a table. While this can be one way of implementing DTT, it can actually be conducted in any environment.
In DTT, the focus is on teaching one skill at a time. Each presentation of a learning opportunity has a discrete beginning and end. It consists of a clear SD or instruction, the child’s response, then a consequence immediately following.
If you recall from the ABC analysis section, a consequence is simply what occurs directly after the behavior. In DTT, the consequence will typically be the therapist praising/reinforcing or correcting the incorrect response.
Therapist: (holds a picture of a girl smiling) How does she feel?
Therapist: Awesome job! High-5! She does feel happy.
In this example, the instruction was “how does she feel?”. The response was “happy”, and the consequence immediately following was praise and a high-5. Each occurred one after the other without delay, and each component was clear and discrete.
#5. Natural environment teaching (NET)
Natural environment teaching is another common teaching method in ABA therapy.
NET consists of teaching within the child’s natural environment, of course. However, it is much more than just that.
NET incorporates learning opportunities within play and other daily activities. NET focuses on the child’s motivation to optimize learning.
Another focus of natural environment teaching is that learning opportunities focus on skills that are functional to the individual. Functional skills are often more easily generalized and maintained, making them a key component of naturalistic teaching methods. Teaching that is natural and enjoyable for the learner is a primary focus of NET.
Consider this example of natural environment teaching. A child who enjoys playing with cars is working with his behavior technician. She joins him in playing with cars, following his lead. The behavior technician uses this motivation for cars to contrive learning opportunities. The child has goals related to prepositions and pronouns. To teach the child to label prepositions, the technician might put the car under a book and ask “where is the car?” The therapist would then prompt the child through the correct response “under the book.” During the same activity, the technician could target the pronouns goal. This would be done in a similar manner. When targeting the pronouns you and I, the technician might ask “who has the blue car?”, with the child responding with “I do” or “you do”.
As you can see, an enjoyable activity such as playing with cars can offer numerous opportunities for learning. The goal of NET is to build on play activities to teach functional and social skills.
#6. Extinction and differential reinforcement
Extinction is a concept that is often misperceived. In technical terms, extinction is a process of withholding reinforcement for behaviors that previously received reinforcement.
For example, if a mom gives her toddler her phone to play with every time he screams when they’re at a grocery store, she may be inadvertently reinforcing the behavior. If the next time the child screamed, she did not provide the phone (the reinforcer), then she would be applying extinction. This is sometimes referred to as “putting the behavior on extinction.”
It’s important to note that extinction is not simply ignoring the person. The type of extinction depends on the function of the behavior. For example, if the child engages in a particular behavior to access attention, then the therapists withhold attention when the behavior occurs, this would be attention extinction. However, for a child who exhibits escape behavior, an escape extinction procedure may consist of blocking or following through.
Simply discontinuing reinforcement without teaching the child an alternative behavior is not generally an accepted practice. Therefore, extinction is rarely used in isolation. Rather, it is more often used in conjunction with differential reinforcement. Differential reinforcement consists of placing a particular behavior on extinction, while reinforcing another behavior.
Let’s think back to the example of the child screaming in the grocery store. Imagine the mother put the screaming on extinction by not giving the child the phone while teaching and reinforcing an alternative more appropriate behavior such as requesting to play with the phone. They may have requested using words, pictures, sign language, pointing, or another mode of communication. In this scenario, the child only receives the phone by requesting and not by screaming.
Differential reinforcement procedures may be used in your child’s therapy program to reduce challenging behaviors while teaching more appropriate ways of getting one’s needs and wants met.
#7. Functional communication training (FCT)
Functional communication training is used to reduce challenging behaviors while reinforcing more appropriate or adaptive behaviors. All behavior is communication. Children who exhibit challenging behaviors such as aggression and self-injury are attempting to communicate a need. We want to however teach children more adaptive manners of communication, so they don’t need to harm themselves or others in order to get these needs met.
Functional communication training first consists of identifying the function of the behavior. This is a vital step in FCT. The function would be one of the following: escape, attention, access to a tangible object, or automatic reinforcement. Automatic reinforcement refers to reinforcement through sensory means. In other words, engaging in a particular behavior because it feels good.
Once the function of the behavior is identified, the treatment team will determine an appropriate functionally-equivalent behavior. In other words, a desired behavior that will meet the same needs of the child, in a more adaptive manner.
For a child who engages in screaming and aggression toward others to gain their attention, the therapy team would identify a more adaptive behavior to gain the attention of others. This might involve vocal verbally requesting for someone to pay attention to them, tapping someone on their shoulder, or another method. For example, the child may be taught to ask a variation of “can you play with me?” or “hey, check this out!” This alternative behavior is systematically taught and reinforced. The optimal goal is for the child to learn that the alternative behavior can gain them access to the attention they are seeking without harmful or interfering behaviors.
#8. Augmented and alternative communication (AAC)
One common characteristic of autism is delayed communication abilities. Vocal verbal communication does not always come naturally for children with autism. Everyone deserves a voice, however, even if it’s not via vocal speech. Thankfully there are alternative forms of communication that are very beneficial in giving a voice to those who struggle to vocally communicate.
Augmented and alternative communication consists of any form of communication other than vocal verbal speech. Common AACs include American sign language (ASL), picture exchange communication system (PECS), and speech-generating devices.
Each form of communication has benefits and drawbacks. Typically the choice of modality is made by a speech language pathologist after a thorough evaluation. One benefit of ASL is that it does not require technology or anything that needs to be carried around. In this way, the child will always have their form of communication, regardless of where they are. However, a downside is that not everyone understands or can communicate via sign language. Additionally, children who struggle with fine motor skills may find the finger motions required of ASL a challenge to develop.
PECS and high-tech modes of communication such as speech-generating devices have the benefit of being able to communicate with anyone without them having specialized training in your form of communication. Alternatively, one downside is that a PECS or speech device user needs to carry their form of communication everywhere.
The form of communication chosen should be individualized to the learner, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Whichever form is chosen, ABA therapists will typically first train the child to communicate simple wants and needs during therapy sessions. Augmentative and alternative communication can go far beyond simple requests, however. Many AAC users, through ABA and speech therapy, can learn to use their mode of communication to effectively conversate with others. While vocal speech may continue to be a goal within therapy sessions, AAC helps to bridge the gap and ensure each learner is provided with the tools necessary to get their needs and desires met.
Shaping is a very common technique used in ABA therapy sessions. It’s likely you have used shaping yourself, without knowing the term for it. In technical terms, shaping is the process of systematically reinforcing behavioral approximations toward an end goal. Let’s break that down to clear up the technical language. Shaping is used to teach and reinforce an optimal goal. Shaping can be used when teaching a greater skill, by first teaching and reinforcing the steps toward the end goal.
Here’s an example to consider. A parent reports a concern with their child not responding to safety instructions. They want their child to respond to the instruction “come here” when they deliver this instruction from across the room or yard. At the current time, their child does not respond to “come here” at all. It would be difficult to teach the child to respond to this instruction from across the yard if they aren’t yet responding to the instruction at all. It is much easier to teach a child to “come here” when they are close to you, as it is easier to gain their attention and prompt responding. Therefore, a shaping procedure could help this child learn to respond to this vital safety instruction by systematically reinforcing steps toward the optimal goal. The end goal is for the child to follow the instruction “come here” when the parent or therapist says “come here” from across the room. A shaping procedure would therefore consist of the behavior technician teaching the child to respond to this instruction from just a foot or two away. Again, this is necessary to effectively prompt the correct response. Once the child masters responding to the instruction from a close distance, the treatment team will gradually increase this distance. The technician may then step back another foot or two and target the instruction from three to four feet away. This process would continue with the technician only moving on to the next targeted distance once the child consistently responds from the shorter distance. Eventually, the child would master the optimal goal of responding to “come here” when a therapist or caregiver provides that instruction from across the room, backyard, or any other setting.
Through observation and imitation of others, we learn many skills. Modeling can therefore be an effective strategy for teaching new skills. In this method, the ABA therapist or another person demonstrates (models) the behavior, with the child imitating it. Modeling can occur in-person or via video models.
For a child who is learning to brush their teeth, the therapist may play a video of themself or of the child’s favorite cartoon character (i.e. Elmo) demonstrating the steps of brushing teeth. The child would imitate the steps, as demonstrated in the video model.
Modeling can be used for teaching many skills. Communication, play, social, self-help skills, and more, may be targeted in ABA therapy through modeling methods.
The aforementioned ABA therapy techniques are commonly used in applied behavior analysis therapies. Each of these methods is based on scientific evidence. This article gives you a general idea of each of the concepts. Any questions specific to your child’s therapy programming including questions about any of these ABA techniques, should be directed to your child’s behavior analyst or case supervisor.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.
Tiger, J. H., Hanley, G. P., & Bruzek, J. (2008). Functional communication training: a review and practical guide. Behavior analysis in practice, 1(1), 16–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391716