Natalie McKelly, M.S. Ed., Ed.S ABA

You may have heard or seen Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, talked about at your child’s school or on advertisements for agencies around town. But what exactly is ABA? Well, it’s not just for individuals with autism or children with special needs.

Tremendously simplified, ABA is the science of changing a person’s behavior by decreasing an unwanted behavior and replacing it with a wanted or more appropriate behavior. This is done through different ways of reinforcing behavior. That being said, virtually every person can benefit from ABA.

What Kind of Behaviors Can ABA Help?

Behaviors related to one of the following diagnoses (but not limited to):

  • ADHD
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Emotional/Behavior Disorders
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Other Developmental Delays

Other behaviors including, (but not limited to):

  • Improving diet or exercise habits
  • Eliminating a bad habit, such as smoking
  • Improving interpersonal social skills
  • Building independence, confidence or self-esteem
  • Improving healthy daily living skills
  • Improving educational or career skills
  • Reducing or extinguishing childhood tantrums
  • Improving independent sleep behaviors

The above are all examples of behaviors that have the capability of being changed through the work of ABA. The possibilities are endless, but how does it work?

The Process of Behavior Change

  1. The behavior or behaviors that need to be increased or decreased are identified.
  2. An assessment is conducted to find out why exactly this behavior is occurring. We all engage in a behavior to either avoid something or to get something. The process of ABA helps to figure out exactly what that is.
  3. A plan is made for how to decrease the unwanted behavior and increase the wanted or more appropriate behavior.
  4. The positive reinforcement provided in the plan is faded over time in order to promote independence.

Susie: “My daughter, Susie, will only eat chicken nuggets. She’ll refuse to eat anything else, so I’m forced to make her chicken nuggets just so she’ll eat.” Susie has learned that if she engages in the behavior of refusing to eat other foods, her parents will make her chicken nuggets eventually. Susie will most likely continue this until the parents’ behavior is changed.

Working with a behavior analyst, it’s decided that Susie can have one bite of chicken nuggets after she eats one bite of the food provided by her parents. After a few days, she can have one bite of chicken nuggets after she eats three bites of the food provided by her parents.

Bites of the food provided by Susie’s parents will increase gradually as the bites of chicken nuggets Susie can eat will decrease until Susie is able to eat most of her food provided by her parents. The chicken nuggets are motivating Susie to eat the food provided by her parents extrinsically until she builds the intrinsic motivation to eat the food provided by her parents.

Mark: “I really want to form meaningful relationships with others, but I have too much trouble making conversation.” Mark has trouble making conversation with others because he wants to avoid attention from his peers. Mark will most likely continue to have trouble making conversation with others until his avoidance is replaced with improved social skills.

With the help of the behavior therapist, Mark writes down a list of appropriate conversation starters. He begins by simply sitting in the break room at work during his 30-minute lunch and engaging with a co-worker using a conversation starter from his list. Because Mark’s trouble with making conversation with others is maintained by avoidance of attention from others, he is only to start by engaging with another individual for a short 30-minute duration in a familiar setting before being positively reinforced by escaping the situation after the 30 minutes.

As Mark gradually feels more comfortable and is having more successful conversations with others, he will increase the time in which he engages with others by, perhaps, initiating conversation with a different co-worker on the walk to the car after work or while getting a cup of coffee. This will progress until Mark is able to successfully and independently initiate and maintain a meaningful conversation with an individual on an ongoing basis in order to create a relationship with that person.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

In Susie’s example, she most likely would not have agreed to eat bites of the food provided by her parents if she was unable to eat her chicken nuggets after. The chicken nuggets served as positive reinforcement for Susie eating the bites of her parents’ food. With Mark, getting to escape such a situation after only 30 minutes of conversation served as positive reinforcement. Similarly, not too many people would show up to work every day if it weren’t for their paycheck; our paychecks serve as our positive reinforcement for going to work. The use of positive reinforcement is vital in the process of ABA and implementing behavior change plans. It is the key component in successfully changing behavior.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to make sure Susie can have bites of chicken nuggets after every meal for the rest of her life or that Mark only needs to engage in conversation with another person for only 30-minutes at a time. That is where the importance of fading positive reinforcement comes in. This is a slow procedure, however, and the duration depends on the individual and their level of success during the process.

ABA is very beneficial for anyone who wants or needs to change one of their behaviors in order to better their life. While it is a science, it can and should be adapted to fit the needs of the individual no matter their age, abilities or socioeconomic status. We all have something we want or need to change to better our lives and ABA can make that happen.

Natalie McKelly received her Masters in Early Childhood Special Education with an emphasis on behavior and Autism from the University of Missouri – Columbia and her Educational Specialist degree in Behavior Analysis from Lindenwood University. She has worked as a behavior therapist with adults and as a special education teacher within a local district, where she continues to serve. At WCPA, Natalie provides behavior analysis services for children, youth, adults and families needing expert assistance to address specific behaviors that need changed. Natalie’s experience and expertise allows her to provide effective services to individuals of all ages and abilities.

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