Keeping it Real - Friendly Vocabulary of ABA


  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) - Applied Behavior Analysis is a science that studies socially important behaviors. A behavior is anything a person can say or do. Behaviors must be observable and recordable.  Through ABA, problematic behaviors (i.e., behaviors that negatively affect the lives of the individual or those around him) are measured and changed through assessments and behavior change programs. The application of ABA examines the antecedents (i.e., where, when, and with whom the behavior occurs), the behavior (i.e., what the behavior looks like), and consequences (i.e., what the person gets out of the behavior, what the person avoids because of the behavior, how others react because of the behavior, etc). ABA examines these factors and creates behavior change programs to lessen problematic behaviors and increase socially appropriate behaviors.  An example of this is when a family needs help with their son, Timmy, who tantrums (problematic behavior) to get toys. An intervention plan could be created to teach the son to ask for toys (appropriate behavior) instead. Both behaviors would be observed over time and data would be taken to evaluate the effects of the behavior plan.


  • Differential Reinforcement - Reinforcement is similar to what individuals outside of the field call “rewards”. Differential reinforcement is used to teach individuals socially appropriate behaviors by rewarding individuals for engaging in appropriate behavior (e.g., parents will reward Timmy for asking for his toys instead of tantruming). The second part of this involves the behaviors that are inappropriate are not being rewarded (e.g., parents will not allow Timmy to have the toy if he tantrums). Therefore, the rewarded appropriate behaviors are likely to continue, and the non-rewarded inappropriate behaviors are likely to cease.


  • Independent Variable - is the plan that will help improve behavior and teach new behaviors/skills. This plan can include a specific time the plan is being carried out, or a certain location where the plan is taking place. The main idea is to show how a new behavior is being measured. The big picture of the “independent variable” is to show how a “plan” is either helpful or unhelpful for the child/client. For example, take a plan that was made for helping a child improve his language skills, by teaching him to say, “I need to go to the bathroom.” To measure and evaluate how the plan is working, you would count how many times he said, “I need to go to the bathroom.” during one week. The number of times he said, “I need to go to the bathroom” would be placed on a graph to show if there is a rise or a fall in the number of times he said, “I need to go to the bathroom.” Since the goal is to support the new behavior, the graph should show a rise in the number of times he said, “I need to go to the bathroom.”


  • Direct Assessment – The first step to writing a behavior intervention plan that helps someone increase appropriate behavior and decrease problem behavior is to understand why that person is engaging in the problem behavior in the first place.  One way to gather information about why a person engages in a problem behavior is to conduct a direct assessment.  This is where a trained individual directly watches a person’s behavior over a period of time, and writes down what happens immediately before the person exhibits the problem behavior and what happens immediately after they exhibit the problem behavior.  They also write down exactly what the problem behavior looks like, using descriptive words.  They make sure to watch the person in the environment where they usually exhibit the problem behavior, such as at school or in the person’s home.  For example, Sally has been yelling a lot at school.  A trained individual will come in and sit in Sally’s classroom (hopefully where Sally can’t see them) and take notes on what happens right before and right after each time she yells, and might also take notes on what the yelling sounds/looks like.  By studying these notes, therapists, teachers, and parents can begin to understand what might be causing and/or allowing the yelling to continue, and why she is yelling in the first place.


  • Operant Behavior - is behavior that has been shaped by consequences.  Meaning if a child wants to get a candy bar at the grocery store and the parent says no, if the child cries and in return you buy the child the candy bar; you are teaching the child to cry in order to get what the child wants.  The crying would be an example of operant behavior.  Chances are that the next time the child wants something at the store and the parent says no, the child will cry.


  • Functionally Equivalent Replacement Behavior (FERB) - is an appropriate behavior that fulfills the same need as the problematic behavior.  Through teaching and reinforcing the child when he uses the functionally equivalent replacement behavior, the problematic behavior will decrease because the child will no longer have a need to use it.  Eventually, the goal is for the functionally equivalent replacement behavior to completely take the place of the problematic behavior. An example of this would be if Jenny cries in school to get her teacher’s attention, Jenny would be taught the functionally equivalent replacement behavior of raising her hand in order to get her teacher’s attention.  Both behaviors serve the same function of getting the teacher’s attention, and this is a crucial part of coming up with the functionally equivalent replacement behavior.


  • Variability - is used when reading and understanding behavior data when graphed from an intervention plan. Variability describes behavior data, which can be very different across time, location or individual. This is usually seen by very high levels of the behavior mixed with very low levels of the behaviors (e.g., Katie sometimes asks for toys a lot in one day, but the next day only scratches to get toys). In this case, it is likely that the individual has not responded consistently to the intervention and therefore we have variability. For a behavior plan to change a problematic behavior, it is important for the data to be stable (i.e., relatively the same) rather than show variability in the data. However, variability is very common when the behavior is first being learned.


  • Proactive Strategies - this is setting your child up for success.  We examine what triggers the problematic behavior and create strategies to eliminate these triggers.  This is very helpful when the child is trying to acquire new skills, and we want to reinforce the child all the time.  Obviously, we cannot reinforce the child when they engage in problematic behaviors; therefore we use proactive strategies to eliminate what triggers the child's problematic behavior.  An example of this would be if the child was afraid of the dark, and therefore refused to stay in her bed.  Giving the child a nightlight and leaving the hallway light on would be a proactive strategy to keep the child in bed.


  • Ecological Manipulations - Ecological manipulations refer to the changes that are made in the individual’s environment. These changes will set the individual up for success by adding or removing things in the environment. Triggers that were known to cause the problematic behaviors in the past could be removed (e.g., such as loud noises). To help the individual show the appropriate behavior, things could be added to the environment (e.g., an individual that has trouble with transitioning can be given a timer to signal when disliked activities need to be done).


  • Chaining - For behaviors that involve multiple steps, such as brushing teeth or getting dressed, chaining is helpful to teach each step of the behavior. We break the behavior into multiple steps as to establish mastery before moving on to the next step. As each step is taught and rewarded, the individual will remember the steps that come before or followed each step. This “chaining” of steps will help the individual learn the order of steps, which could help them complete the entire task.


Ms. Kristine D. Dickson