The Techniques of Applied Behavior Analysis
Wherever they are applied, the various techniques used by applied behavior analysts remain consistently oriented toward observing and manipulating the ABCs.
The systematic observation of patients is one of the cornerstones of these techniques. Known as the Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA), most ABAs will begin their treatment by making consistent, careful observations of the patient in their natural environment. The FBA can also be informed by observations made by other caregivers and from reports or interviews with the patient.
The behavior analyst will then form a hypothesis of the ABCs in play with that particular patient, and build a Behavior Intervention Plan, or BIP, that is designed to make systematic, but gradual, changes in the consequences of behaviors that are designed to encourage socially positive behaviors and discourage socially detrimental behaviors.
The particular tools used to implement the consequences might include:
- Discrete Trial Training (DTT) – Involves breaking down complex behaviors into a number of elements, which are separately and sequentially reinforced to build up into the desired behavior.
- Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) – Rather than targeting specific behaviors, PRT involves a holistic examination of motivations and responsiveness in the patient.
- Natural Environment Training (NET) – NET uses reward systems already established in the patient’s life and pairs them with desired behaviors to create a naturalistic pattern of behavior response.
- Token Economies – Token economies create a systematic method of offering placeholders for rewards that are offered in exchange for positive behaviors—gold stars given in class for homework turned in on time, for example. An eventual reward for the tokens helps create a pattern of reinforced behaviors, particularly in group environments.
Creativity is a valuable trait for an applied behavior analyst. Working in natural environments, they are constantly assessing methods to modify behaviors, and experimenting with new techniques all the time. The field is constantly evolving.
The Practice of Applied Behavior Analysis in the World Today
Because ABA has broad applications in almost any situation where a particular behavior or response needs to be taught or encouraged, behavior analysts find employment in a diverse array of fields well outside the typical range of psychological practice.
ABA theories and techniques are behind many modern educational methods used in classrooms around the country. The Good Behavior Game, for example, a popular classroom management tool, was also invented by Dr. Wolf. The practice of giving out gold stars, offering consistent repetitive reinforcement in the form of regular quizzes, and having students raise their hands before speaking all owe their existence and effectiveness to applied behavior analysis.
But ABA is particularly prominent in the world of special education. Thirty percent of applied behavior analysts are employed in schools, usually working with developmentally disabled children. ABAs are responsible for conducting FBAs and using their findings to work with other healthcare professionals and educators to develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special needs kids to ensure they receive the assistance they need to participate as much as possible in the same classes as their general education peers.
As one of the few treatment techniques found to be scientifically proven as effective for treating autism spectrum disorder, ABA practice in schools has surged along with the increase in ASD diagnoses in the United States.
ABAs work with patients with a wide variety of diagnoses to either directly treat behavioral issues or to assist other healthcare professionals in providing treatment that may be impeded by undesirable behaviors, or that could be enhanced by encouraging new behaviors.
For example, ABAs often work with speech-language therapists to determine how best to teach language to developmentally delayed children. In pre-verbal kids, it can be problematic to determine whether speech delays are the result of physical, mental, or behavioral problems. Studies have shown that motivation can be a problem in cases of traumatic brain injury when it comes to language acquisition.
Using FBAs and careful implementation of BIPs, ABAs can establish communication and encourage language skill development in those cases. They use the same techniques on other patients with issues as diverse as:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Fears and phobias
- Anger management issues
- Anxiety disorders