An effective ABA program should have the following components:
A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who designs and supervises the ABA program. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) is a person who has met the educational and professional training requirements established by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB). Many autism special interest groups also recommend that the supervising BCBA have experience working in the field.
A second common characteristic of an effective ABA program is a detailed and thorough assessment of the learner’s behavioral and clinical needs. Before an ABA treatment program begins, it is imperative to assess the clinical needs of a child to formulate treatment goals and a highly individualized curriculum. A Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) typically includes direct observation of the client in their natural environments, interviews with parents and caregivers, record review, questionnaires, among other methods. In fact, assessment should not only occur before the onset of treatment but should be an ongoing process throughout treatment. This helps ensure that a child’s goals will remain individualized, and relevant to his or her needs at any given time.
From this detailed assessment comes the next common characteristic of an effective ABA program: meaningful and objectively defined skill development and behavioral goals. Goals in ABA typically fall under two general categories: Skill-development goals and behavioral goals.
- Skill-development goals are designed to address a child’s skill deficits and are based on their current needs, their developmental age, and their chronological age. A child’s developmental age is the age that represents their current abilities and adaptive levels, whether that be a year behind or two years behind their chronological age. Their chronological age is their actual age in years since they were born. Sometimes it is appropriate to teach a child skills that will match their developmental age. For example, when learning to speak, children will speak individual words before forming sentences. So, when teaching a child to speak, you begin at their developmental age for language and move forward from there. Other times, it makes more sense to teach a child skills according to their chronological age, as is the case much of the time when teaching toy play. You a teach a child to play with the same kinds of toys their friends play with so you can facilitate their friendships when they are around other children. Skill development goals should be highly individualized, socially valid, and address a child’s skill deficits across relevant domains (motor, academic, language, executive, play, adaptive, etc.) This is what is meant by meaningful goals, goals that are socially significant.
- Behavioral goals typically include reducing challenging, undesirable behaviors while simultaneously teaching desirable replacement behaviors. Identification of the function or “purpose” of the challenging behavior is an imperative first step in this process. An effective assessment will identify the function or functions of the challenging behavior(s). For example, after observation and data analysis, a BCBA may hypothesize that the function of a child’s tantrum behavior is “escape”. In other words, the hypothesis is that the child is engaging in tantrum behavior to escape or avoid a task, demand, or activity. From this point, a behavior intervention plan will be established to reduce the tantrum behavior and increase appropriate replacement behaviors such as asking for a break or requesting help. Replacement behaviors are alternative behaviors to the challenging behavior that should be functionally equivalent (serve the same purpose as the challenging behavior), socially appropriate, and easier to engage in. An effective behavior intervention plan should include proactive (before the challenging behavior occurs) and reactive (after the challenging behavior occurs) strategies.
Another part of goal setting in an ABA program is choosing objective goals. Objectively defined goals are important as it is a way of measuring an individual’s success and the appropriateness of how we are teaching an individual. When goals of the treatment program are defined in observable and quantifiable terms, a treatment program can make sure that a child is making progress towards the end goal. However, if the goal is vague, such as “teach social skills” rather than, “Billy will learn to initiate ball play games with his friends at school during recess time with 90% accuracy over a period of 4 consecutive weeks” it is difficult, or rather impossible to see if a child is making any progress. Therefore, goals have to be objective, observable, and quantifiable.
Measurement of the established goals is the next characteristic of an effective ABA program. Data collection and frequent review of progress are critical to effective ABA programs. When information on a child’s progress is collected while they are learning the task, their progress can be monitored to see if their learning rates are increasing, if their learning a new skill in an appropriate amount of time, or if progress is slow and the goal needs to be redefined or teaching techniques have to be altered. Without data collection, sound clinical decisions cannot be made.
Also, effective ABA programs will include numerous ABA techniques and principles into teaching a child to learn. ABA is more than just a discrete trial.
Further, an effective ABA program will promote independence across all areas of a child’s functioning. While initially a child may need help learning a new skill, once that skill is learned or ‘mastered’ a child will be expected to engage in that task all by themselves, or independently. The more independent a child becomes, the more they can navigate their surroundings without help.
The next two characteristics of an effective ABA program are that the program provides many learning opportunities for the child and that the intervention is consistent. When talking about learning opportunities it’s important to note that while a child is in an ABA therapy session, their mere presence alone is not enough to make sure that learning is occurring. It is up to the teacher to ensure that the child is absorbing the information provided and that the session is filled with such learning opportunities: in other words, ensure that the teaching session is productive. The goal is to get the most output or maximum learning in every session and to further the skill from where it was in the last session to a step closer in independence in the current session.
Consistency refers not only to the number of treatment hours, but also to the notion that all team members are teaching a child using the same principles and techniques, and are working on the goals and instructions that were indicated to be effective when the assessment was undertaken or as directed by the leader of the team. So even though different people may work with a child across the span of a week, the child’s teaching will mimic that as if only one teacher was present the entire time. For example, if teacher one is teaching a child the first step of brushing their teeth, which is to put the toothbrush in their mouth, teacher number two will continue where teacher number one finished, and teacher number three will continue where teacher number two left off. This scenario actually shows one of the reasons why data collection is imperative. If the teachers did not take data on a child’s progress during their session, then the next teacher scheduled to work with a child would not be informed about what step to pick up from and/or which teaching techniques to use.
Another component of a good ABA program is the use of positive reinforcement. While we will discuss positive reinforcement in more detail later in sessions, positive reinforcement basically means providing a reward for a behavior to increase the chances that the behavior will occur again. It is important that a child be in a positive learning environment, so that they are praised for their accomplishments and thus motivated to keep on learning. Children should be having fun during their sessions even though a lot is expected of them. Therefore, the use of positive reinforcement is essential.
Generalization is also a key component of an effective ABA program. Generalization refers to the concept that a child will demonstrate what they have learned in the ABA session outside of the ABA session; what they have learned to demonstrate with their ABA teacher with other people in their environment; and what they have learned to do using simple and concise language, to more complex language. Without generalization a child may only be
able to demonstrate a skill with a specific person, at a specific place, at a specific time. This is sometimes seen when a parent says, “oh he does it for me,” meaning that when a teacher asks a child to do something specific, say to clap, the child does not clap. However, when the parent asks their child to ‘clap’ the child claps. This does not mean that a child does not know how to clap, it simply means that the child has not generalized clapping from his parents to another person. Generally speaking, it is more important for a child to do one thing with anyone and everyone asked, then a hundred things with only one person at one time and in one place.
Given this concept of generalization, good ABA programs will include parent training as a key part to the treatment program. Parents are key members of the ABA program and in a child’s life, they know their child best. As parents spend most waking hours with their child, it is important that they be educated and trained in continuing where the ABA session ended. An ABA therapy program is simply much more than the number of hours a professional agency works with a child – it should involve all environments in a child’s life. The principles of ABA should be incorporated into the child rearing practices in the families implementing this program so that there is consistency in a child’s environment and that as many learning opportunities during waking hours that can be captured, are in fact captured. That does not mean to say that parents become mini teachers outside of therapy and stop being parents, but it does mean that parents and other significant caregivers are an integral part of the treatment team.
Last but not least, an effective ABA program will hold regular meetings between all team members and the family to update a child’s curricula, targets, and goals, and will continually and consistently collaborate with other professionals working with a child in other domains. This may include a child’s school teacher, speech therapist, medical doctor, psychiatrist, or anyone who has a say in helping a child. It is important that all members of a child’s team collaborate so that they are working together rather than unknowingly working in opposition to one another. And this is especially true when it comes to the area or domain of challenging behaviors. It is imperative for the welfare of a child that all persons interacting with a child are especially consistent in how they react when a child is engaging in an inappropriate behavior. So, by having consistent collaboration with other professionals on a child’s team, such consistency can be maintained.