How is Applied Behavior Analysis Different From Psychology?

The answer to this question is that while many people have historically viewed behavior analysis as a branch of psychology, the two disciplines take fundamentally different and antithetical perspectives to account for variability in human behavior.

In general, Behavior Analysis does not concern itself with mental states or inner thoughts when it comes to describing why we behave the way we do. Rather than focusing on “the mind,” behavior analysts look at behaviors, or in other words, what we do, as a consequence of things that happened previously. Simply put, we will repeat things when the consequences are pleasant and we will stop doing things when the consequences are unpleasant. Behavior analysis, as it suggests, focuses on treating behavioral problems from a purely behavioral perspective/lens. Functional analysis, gathering of data to establish trends, and then a subsequent intervention program or plan that utilizes various forms of operant learning are then applied.

Psychology focuses on the mind. Psychology as a discipline largely hypothesizes internal explanations (personality traits, mediating forces and other structures in the brain, etc.) explain differences in human behavior. Psychology looks to explain behavioral variability by appealing to internal causes that are typically seen as inside the mind (e.g., mood states, personality traits, hypothesized structures such as ego and/or drive states)

In short, the difference can be stated as follows: In the ENVIRONMENT (Behavior Analysis) versus inside the MIND (Psychology).

Using Time Warnings To Help Students With Autism

 

Now is the time? Kid and clock: preschool child preparing for the school

Giving students warnings about time remaining in an activity can provide a helpful frame of reference. Time limit warnings should be paired with an auditory or visual cue, such as a bell or card. Towards the end of the work activity, the teacher should verbalize, ‘five minutes left, ‘two minutes left’. For students requiring additional support, the verbal que can be paired with the gestural pointing to the timer and manually signing ‘finished’ using sign language. When preparing students for the end of an activity that has a natural ending point, such as a game or a timed-test, the teacher should alert students that a transition is approaching by making such a statement as, ‘only a few more cards and the game is over’. Finally, time warnings or making transitional cards as part of the student’s routine can also help students with autism develop the capacity to be flexible for change. Additionally, teaching students to put away materials in the completion of an activity can function as a natural queue that one activity is ending, and that another is beginning. For example, the teacher can say, ‘once you finish that problem, you can begin to get ready for recess. All of these simple, yet very effective support strategies are easy to use, and help both students and teachers during everyday classroom activities.

Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis…Explained for Parents

In the first Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis article in 1968, Baer and colleagues described six dimensions of behavior analysis. To facilitate your understanding of this seminal article, we suggest that you substitute the word “characteristic” for the word “dimension.” We will do so for you in the following description. The six characteristics are; 1) that it is Applied; 2) that it is Behavioral; 3) that it is Analytical; 4) that it is Technological; 5) that it is Conceptually Systematic and Effective; and 6) that it has Generality. The reason why these six dimensions identified almost 40 years ago still pertain to this day has to do with their importance in the effectiveness of an ABA program when it comes to the treatment of children with autism. We will discuss each dimension briefly; however, for more in-depth analysis of these dimensions, I recommend you reviewing the article mentioned previously. It is available online at the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) for free.

Some of the implications of the article were to distinguish ABA from laboratory research and also from other fields that worked with behavior (e.g., psychology). There is nothing wrong with laboratory research. In fact, it has supplied us with a lot of the principles, laws, and techniques we use in ABA today. However, ABA was a relatively new applied science and setting the foundations was very important.

Let’s take a look at each of the dimensions in greater detail. The first dimension mentioned by the authors was that of behavior analysis being Applied. Everything that is typically studied in the research and/or addressed by change procedures in applied behavior analysis is studied because of its potential social significance in society rather than for the means of theory alone. If what’s being studied doesn’t have any social importance (i.e., it is not important to the majority of people), behavior analysts typically do not see it as important. This has direct implications on the implementation of the research being conducted in ABA as the research findings can be used in everyday settings to help people in socially significant and important ways. This also has relevance to individuals with autism. It is apparent that society values the use of applied behavior analysis to teach individuals with autism to communicate or to reduce self-injurious behavior for example. Without social significance, or intent to actually apply to the every-day world what’s being researched, everything a person could find out in a research study would contribute to theory, but would not immediately impact society. Research conducted in this manner would add to our scientific knowledge but not improve our everyday lives. The same applies to intervention. So, application in socially significant ways is the first dimension of ABA.

Second, the authors described one of the dimensions as being Behavioral. Unlike some forms of psychology and education which might rely on people’s personal accounts and other indirect representations of behavior, ABA is concerned with direct measures of actual behavior. Behavior, of course, is composed of physical, observable events. In other words, ABA is concerned with facts and actual occurrences of behavior, things that can be observed and measured. It’s pragmatic in that it is guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory. With intervention programs for individuals with autism, teams are focused on observing behavior—teaching behavior and not so much with that individuals inferred thoughts are.

Next is the suggestion that ABA is Analytical. What does this mean? Well according to the authors of the article, in order for results of any experiment to be credible, a researcher or the person actually conducting the experiment has to show that somehow the variables used or manipulated in the study actually controlled the behavior that they were looking at to the greatest extent possible (e.g., antecedent and consequence stimuli). In other words, the experimenters must show that by changing one or more aspects in a person’s environment a change in behavior occurred, and by returning those variables back to what they were before the experiment, you can stop the behavior from happening (this is sometimes referred to as experimental control or is referred to as the process of establishing a functional relationship). In an intervention program for children with autism, Analytical would refer to the fact that the individual performs behaviors when asked to do so (e.g., “touch the blue card” and the individual touches the blue card) and that the function of behaviors is analyzed (Baer does not explicitly state this in the article and this article pre-dates the concept of the behavioral function, but he is describing the foundations of the concept of behavioral function intentionally or not when he says ….”a believable demonstration of the events that can be responsible for the occurrence or non-occurrence of that behavior (p 94)”). So applied behavior analysis is Analytical.

The fourth dimension described by Baer and his colleagues pertains to the dimension of ABA being Technological. This simply means that the procedures used in ABA have to be thoroughly identified and described so that someone who has no familiarity with the procedures can read the description and know exactly what behavior to look for and how to implement the techniques needed. This is an important concept in ABA programs for individuals with autism. Operational definitions are used. The information is written clearly, objectively, and in a way in which it’s easily understandable for people involved. This concept is consistent with good practices in science and scientific practice in other fields.

Next, we have the dimension referred to as Conceptual. In the field of behavior analysis, it is important that any analysis conducted on changing behavior in socially significant ways can be related back to the basic principles of behavior.  When describing any teaching procedure with an individual with autism, it is important to describe the procedure in enough detail for others to follow (Technological), but to also tie that procedure back to the underlying concept or principle (e.g., forward chaining procedure). This provides others with two bits of information to assist them to recreate what you have done (i.e., the technical and the conceptual). Results of any analysis or any experiment can be and should be applicable to the basic principles of behavior analysis.

The fifth characteristic of ABA is Effectiveness. This notion of effectiveness means that the changes that were brought about by the ABA techniques must be significant enough to be of practical value and seen as helpful or significant to the people being helped (a conceptual precursor to social validity and the introduction of the concept of effect size in ABA). In addition, the change in behavior must be large enough to make a difference in an individual’s life (e.g., increasing attending to the classroom teacher during instruction time from 1-2 seconds to 3-5 minutes rather than increasing attending to the classroom teacher from 1-2 seconds to 4-5 seconds). The qualification of social importance can be determined by the child, the parents, the student, the teacher, and so on (and all should have a say in determining this). If the changing behavior isn’t seen as significant (i.e., meaningful) to the people you are trying to help, then all your efforts are wasted.

Lastly, Baer and colleagues looked at the dimension of Generality. Simply put, generality refers to changes that have been produced by behavioral techniques and the necessity that these changes should be durable over time, observable in a wide variety of environments, or spread to a wide variety of related behaviors.  All of us that work with individuals with autism know very well the importance of generalization of skills.

In 1987 Baer, Wolf, and Risley revisited the dimensions of ABA and found them still very relevant. Some of the dimensions were refined in terms of tactics, but still represent ABA. Now while all these dimensions were highlighted back in 1968 and 1987, all of these dimensions are still directly related with what experts believe as being effective characteristics of treatment programs for children with autism today.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? An elaboration

Applied Behavior Analysis is the applied science of behavior formalized by B.F. Skinner. It is sometimes referred to as Behavior Modification, ABA, or Behavior Analysis. The theories, laws, and techniques have their foundations in years of basic research and describe some of the most fundamental things we know about behavior. Some early influences on the field of ABA include Watson, Thorndyke, Pavlov, and groups of psychologists, philosophers, and scientists in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that pursued empirical science.

Contemporary hallmarks of ABA include the Law of Reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism. Let’s briefly look at these areas to get a better understanding of the field of applied behavior analysis.

Simply put, the Law of Reinforcement states that behavior that is reinforced will continue to occur or will occur more often in the future. Conversely, a behavior that is not reinforced will not occur or will decrease in occurrence over time (though, sometimes we see a short increase after reinforcement is discontinued for a behavior that has been previously reinforced).

Through a great deal of clinical experience, it has become apparent that one challenge with really applying this law and understanding its fundamental truth relates to a not having a good understanding of what reinforcement is or can be. Some general misunderstandings include the assumption that consequences most people would describe as positive or pleasant will function as reinforcers. For example, most people would assume that receiving a thank you note would be a reinforcer for a job well done. In practice, this is not the case. There are individuals that would have no interest in a thank you note, but would rather prefer a pay increase. There are, of course, some that would.

Often times, people attribute what they would find reinforcing to another person. Life shows us, this is not the case. Conversely, when we talk about reinforcement, something that we think may be reinforcing may in fact be punishing (a consequence that causes a behavior not to occur or to decrease in the future). Similarly, reinforcers can vary in their magnitude or effectiveness dependent on the environment and on what has happened in the time before the reinforcer is being used.

One final thought is that behavior is often under multiple schedules. Some of the schedules are reinforcing and some of them are punishing. The effects of the reinforcers and punishers that are a part of each schedule vary. This makes it challenging for all but only the most skilled Behavior Analysts to have a good understanding of reinforcement, reinforcers, and schedules of reinforcement. The field of Behavioral Economics is making strides in empirically describing these concerns. However, the law of reinforcement remains one of the important concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis.

One of the more recent (relatively speaking as it dates back to the very early ’80’s) concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis is behavioral function. Previous to this notion, the field was more commonly known as behavior modification and behavior was mainly changed by modifying consequences (e.g., reinforcers and punishers).

Research in the early 80’s demonstrated functional relationships between problem behavior and the conditions that reinforced it. This research led to the concept of behavioral function. Simply, a behavior must be analyzed in terms of what function (i.e., purpose) the behavior served for the individual performing it.

Nowadays, we commonly look at the inappropriate behavior that children with autism perform in these terms. We ask, “are they performing this behavior for attention? Are they performing it to escape or avoid something that they do not like? Are they performing the behavior to get access to something that they want? Are they doing it because it gives them some sort of pleasure?”

Additionally, there are two questionnaire-based assessments, the Questions About Behavior Function (QABF) and Motivation Assessment Scale (MAS), that assist users with determining the function of the behavior in question. The QABF was developed with adults with developmental disabilities and the MAS was developed on children with developmental disabilities.

Contextualism is a concept somewhat close to behavior function. In short, contextualism refers to analyzing behavior in terms of the context that it occurs. What are the characteristics of the environment? Is it loud? Quiet? Hot? Who is there when the behavior happens?  What happens right before the behavior occurs? What happens earlier in the lead up to the occurrence of the behavior? What happens after?

All of these questions are things that we ask when we analyze behavior. Taking these things into consideration is why we refer to Applied Behavior Analysis as contextual.

Our final hallmark of ABA is one of the more ephemeral concepts. It is complex and philosophical in nature and often times needs to be reflected on to really get a grasp of it. This is the concept of determinism. This is also one of the more controversial concepts in ABA. Essentially, the concept of determinism says that our behavior is under the influence of our learning histories, the antecedents that occasion the behavior, and the consequences that reinforce or punish it. We are not operating under the umbrella of free will.

Like was said earlier, this is a controversial concept. Some say that our verbal behavior (i.e., thoughts) can control our behavior. In some cases, it may mitigate our behavior and, of course, it is behavior and therefore is under the same influences of antecedents, consequences and learning history. However, with the exception of the species-specific behavior we are born with, we are products of our learning histories and present environmental factors.

Applied Behavior Analysis is an elaborate science of behavior and it has been applied in many arenas (businesses, animal training, individuals with developmental disabilities, individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury, etc.,). There are many laws and principles and even more techniques based on these laws and principles. Some of the main hallmarks remain those referenced above (i.e., reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism).

What is ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding behavior. Behavior Analysis is a theory with principles and laws that are derived from research. All of the practices in Applied Behavior Analysis are derived from basic research. ABA is considered an evidence-based practice, which means that ABA has passed scientific tests of its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness. When such principles and laws are put into practice, it is said that behavior analysis is being appliedbehavior analysis helps us to understand how behavior works, how behavior is affected by the environment and how learning takes place, thus the term APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS or ABA for short.

Simply put, applied behavior analysis is a science concerned with the behavior of people, what people do and say, and the behavior of animals. Behavior analysis attempts to understand, describe, and predict behavior – why is it we do what we do and how did we learn to do what we do? The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.

The years of basic research in Applied Behavior Analysis have given us many Laws of Human Behavior that we can apply to the treatment of children with autism.  ABA has its roots in behavior therapy since the 20th century. The earliest behavior analysis on children with autism spectrum appeared in the early 1960’s and 1970’s in the USA.  ABA requires implementation of established principals of learning, behavioral strategies and environmental modifications to improve and teach new behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis is founded on 7 core dimensions.  This means that all interventions that are provided through ABA services should fall within these 7 categories.  The 7 dimensions are, Generalization, Effective, Technological, Applied, Conceptually Systematic, Analytic and Behavioral. Generalization is when skills and or behaviors occur in environments other than where they were taught. Effective interventions are monitored to evaluate the impact on the target behavior.  Technological procedures are described clearly and concisely so that others may implement accurately. Applied is when socially significant behaviors are selected. Conceptually Systematic interventions are consistent with principals demonstrated by literature.  Analytic decisions are data based. Behaviors targeted are observable ad measurable.

It is important to understand that Applied Behavior Analysis is not only limited to autism. There is a variety of populations and fields that ABA can be applied to. The interventions that have been developed based on ABA principals are used in every walk of life and every profession.  Different types of people use ABA in their jobs and in their lives. Parents, teachers, psychologists and these ABA principals can be used in education, weight loss, animal training, sports and within many other fields and activities.  The ultimate goal of Applied Behavior Analysis is to establish and enhance socially important behaviors!

Why Do Some ABA programs Use Basic Language When Working with Children with Autism?

We know many children with autism typically have difficulty understanding language. These difficulties can be subtle. For example, a child may have difficulty understanding humor. In other cases, they may be more pronounced. That is, a child may respond to little or no language that is spoken to him or her. Taking this fact into account, most ABA programs will teach a child using simple and concise language at the beginning stages of the program. For example, if the goal is to teach a child to imitate a ‘clap’ the teacher would simply say, “Do this” or “Copy me” while demonstrating the action. The instruction would be limited to as few words as possible (in this example, two words and then a demonstration of the action). The teacher would refrain from using a longer instruction that contains more words such as, “okay, now I’m going to do something and I want you to watch me and then copy me after I’m done. Are you ready?” For a child who has difficulty understanding language, this instruction is laden with words that are unnecessary to complete the instruction and probably will include many words that the child does not presently know. Another example of this can be seen with one-word instructions given to children when attempting to teach them to perform actions. With this type of program, an instruction to the child may include something like “clap” or “stand up” and the child would perform the action. The general idea is here is to use fewer, and simpler words to evoke the desired response from the child.

Therefore, in the initial stages of an ABA program, the more concise and simpler the instruction, the more successful the child will be. It is important to note that the simplicity or complexity of language used should be based on the child’s language repertoire at the time of assessment. Over time, and with success, simple and concise instructions will be elaborated and more language will be incorporated into the instruction.

The Advantages of Applied Behavior Analysis (Podcast Episode)

A team of knowledgeable professionals from The LeafWing Center share their expertise about applied behavior analysis. They discuss the basics of the technique, what a good ABA program entails, reasonable expectations and the many benefits to be gleaned from this type of treatment. This is an in-depth tour of what ABA is and how it works.

Listen to the Podcast Episode here:
The Advantages of Applied Behavior Analysis Podcast

 

 

When You Start an ABA program, What Should You Reasonably Expect from Your Service Provider?

The following are things that you should expect as a parent when you begin treatment for your child with Autism.

You and your child have a right to a therapeutic environment.  This means that the teaching environment set up to help your child is one in which socially significant learning occurs.  As a client, your child also has the right to services from an agency in which their number one goal is the personal welfare of your child (e.g., safety, treatment efficacy, advocacy). This means that all energy put into the program is to help your child become more independent and lead a better life.

It is also your child’s right to have a treatment program supervised by a competent behavior analyst. Unfortunately, as the rates of autism have increased, so have the number of treatment programs allegedly providing assistance to children with autism.  Furthermore, in many locations, the demand presently outweighs the supply for trained, experienced behavior analysts. It is imperative that the credentials and qualifications of your service provider be credible.

Your child has a right to be provided with a program that teaches functional skills. Functional skills are skills that a child can use in their everyday life and that furthers their independence (tying shoes, initiating conversation, engaging in cooperative play, etc.). There is little benefit in taking the time and dedication to teach a child something that cannot be incorporated or used in their everyday life.

Assessment and ongoing evaluation are crucial components of any ABA program, and should be expected.  This includes setting up a program based on the individual needs of a child and continuing a program based on the ongoing needs of a child. These needs will continually change, therefore ongoing assessments and modifications are imperative, necessary, and a right.

Parent and caregiver trainings should be included in the ABA program. These typically include meetings between parents or caregivers and their service provider in which valuable ABA strategies are discussed, demonstrated, and implemented. The focus of these meetings is to educate parents about various but individualized ABA based techniques they can implement with their child to address challenging behaviors, reinforce desirable behaviors, and promote generalization of progress.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a child with autism has the right to the most effective treatment procedures available. In this case – scientifically validated treatment programs which today have only been shown to be based on ABA principles and techniques.

What Kinds Of Behavior Are Behavior Analysts Interested In

Behavior analysts are interested in behaviors which are observable and measurable. Voluntary behavior, or what is known as Operant Behavior, is of particular interest to behavior analysts. This is the kind of behavior that we are primarily concerned with when it comes to helping children with autism as it is the type of behavior that can be influenced or learned as a consequence of environmental events. We can manipulate a person’s learning of operant or voluntary behaviors by manipulating environmental events. For example, parents often reward their children for cleaning up their room (an attempt to reinforce the behavior). Cleaning a room is a voluntary behavior and by rewarding such voluntary behavior, the parent has set up the environment to increase the likelihood that their child will clean up the room again to get rewarded again. For the purposes of this post, we will use the terms reward and reinforce interchangeably, though reinforce is the correct term.

The second type of behavior is involuntary behavior, or a reflex. Technically, it is referred to as a Respondent Behavior (as opposed to an operant behavior). Reflexes are automatic behaviors that are physiological and not usually influenced by consequences. You as a person have little or no control in the behavior occurring. This includes behaviors such as a sneeze, becoming startled when something jumps out at you, or blinking. Since reflexive behavior is automatic and cannot be changed by environmental events or consequences, this type of behavior is rarely the focus of an ABA program.

In general, behavior analyst have an interest in reducing maladaptive, undesirable, challenging behaviors while increasing desirable replacement behaviors. Replacement behaviors are alternative behaviors we would like to teach individuals to take the place of the challenging behaviors. These behaviors should serve the same purpose (function) of the challenging behavior, be socially appropriate, and easier to engage in than the challenging behavior.

Addressing Eating Issues With Children With Autism

Do you have troubles getting your child to eat meals, let alone healthy meals?  Many children with autism have difficulties with eating, either because of texture sensitivities, taste aversions, food allergies causing their diets to be very limited, or even just a lack of interest because they would rather be playing or doing something else.  Whatever the reason, it makes it stressful and difficult for parents to plan for and provide well balanced meals.  However, there are many strategies that are available to help parents through these tough times!

First, create an appropriate environment, structure eating times for the whole family so your child with autism begins to experience a routine, with everyone involved.  Designate a specific table where snacks and meals will be eaten. If challenging behaviors are typically high during eating times, designate one parent to focus on your child with autism so the other parent can focus on the other siblings, if applicable. This will also allow the adults and other siblings to be role models for the child with autism.  It is also important to remove distractions from the environment.  For example, have the tv and tablets turned off for at least 30 minutes prior to eating whenever possible.

Second, if your child does not normally sit for meal times but rather “grazes” snacking here and there, start with a very short requirement.  For example, allow your child to leave the table if he sits for three minutes, or eats a particular number of bites (see below). Increase the expectation for the time at the table as your child is successful. Using ‘first – then’ can be very powerful. First, eat 3 bites then you can go play!

Third, set clear rules.  Visual charts help really well to show children with autism when they can get what they want.  So, if they are playing with the iPad when it’s dinner time, take the iPad, ask them if they want the iPad, if they say “yes” then tell them “first sit for one, two, three minutes (pointing at drawn boxes on a piece of paper) and then you can have the iPad!”.  Or, “first eat one, two, three, four, five bites (pointing at drawn boxes on a piece of paper) and then you can have the iPad!”  Give a happy face, a sticker, or some other drawn symbol in each box when your child finishes a bite or a minute goes by.

Lastly, make eating fun!  Incorporate your child’s favorite character into eating (e.g., make pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse).  Allow your child to choose which plate she wants; even take her to the store and let her pick out which set of dishes she wants.  If your child likes music, play a small bit of music on the radio after she takes a bite.  Always maintain a positive tone, be calm, follow thru with the expectations that you have set and of course be creative, have fun, and don’t forget to smile and have fun yourself!