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What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

What are the different types of behavior analysis?

Behavior analysis can be divided into to main areas: Experimental Analysis of Behavior (“EAB” or “basic”) and Applied Behavior Analysis (“ABA” or “applied”). Behavior analysis started with the animal laboratory work of B.F. Skinner. Such laboratory work with animals is now generally called EAB to differentiate it from ABA which is the application of principals observed in the laboratory to real life and practical circumstances. Often, EAB is called “basic” behavior analysis because its main focus is to study behavior in general and how environmental contingencies affect behavior (i.e., the basics of behavior) in a controlled environment. ABA is referred to as “applied” because it focuses on using established behavioral principles in a real world setting. These real world settings reach beyond children with developmental disabilities and are used in many disciplines and industries. For example, ABA is used in performance management, behavioral economics, jurisprudence, pain therapy, and pharmacological therapy..

More generally, EAB provides a controlled scientific framework for analyzing behavior and ABA is applies the principals learned from that framework to real life situations. This dichotomy between fundamental research and application is common in many sciences. For example, calculus is the mathematics of rates of change and physics is the science of application of changes in the physical world. Biology is the study of organic beings and medicine is the application of this study to healing.

Behavior analysis focuses on the fact that behaviors are learned through interaction and feedback from the environment. The “environment” consists of anything in the learner’s surrounding. Examples of environmental variables include: how other people interact with the learner; different sounds, smells, tactile, or visual inputs; and events that have happened in the past with the learner (i.e., learning history). These are some of the factors that need to be accounted for when examining why a person is or is not doing something. Because everyone has their own unique learning history and different aspects of the environment are prominent to different people (e.g., children diagnosed with autism are often overselective of particular environmental variables), everyone learns differently. Thus, people learn faster when teaching procedures are individualized to their learning style.

What do behavior analyst study?

Behavior analyst do not actually study behavior just as a form (i.e., topography), they study the reasons why behaviors occur. For example, it is not enough for a behavior analyst to know that a child is screaming in public. There can be many reasons why a child is screaming. Perhaps the child likes hearing the scream or likes the way screaming feels in the throat (i.e., automatic reinforcement/sensory). Perhaps the child is screaming because he/she does not want to go the bathroom (i.e., escape or task avoidance). Perhaps the child is screaming because their parent is talking on the phone (i.e., attention). Perhaps the child is screaming because a toy needed to be put back on the store shelf (i.e., access to tangibles). Each reason necessitates a different approach to teaching the child to not scream. Behavior analysis emphasizes the fact that people do things for different reasons. What was an effective teaching procedure for one child is not necessarily an effective teaching procedure for another child. The study of the science of behavior analysis is the study of an objective method to determine why behavior occurs and correspondingly, how to alter such behavior.

Why is the dynamic interaction between the behavior analyst (e.g., consultant), tutor, and learner essential?

The main goal of ABA programs is to decrease maladaptive behaviors and increase deficit (i.e. missing) behaviors. Learning will occur when the right teaching environment is established and consistently maintained. This is especially important when working with children with autism spectrum disorder because they do not make the same assumptions that typical children do when interacting with their environment (e.g., stimulus overselectivity). One of the behavior analyst’s jobs is to assess the interactions between the learner and the environment to determine how to best teach the learner.

Teaching is a dynamic process between the teacher and learner. The learner’s performance provides feedback on the teacher’s performance. As a result, the teaching changes as the learner changes. Data collected during teaching sessions not only provide feedback on the learner’s performance but also on the teacher’s implementation of the behavior program and the behavior analyst’s design of the program. A common saying among behavior analysts is: “You get what you teach.” This means that if the learner is not learning, the teacher and analyst are teaching. In these circumstances, the behavior analyst needs to re-examine the environment and teaching approach to ensure that the learner does learn.

What are the essentials of your teaching framework?

Aubrey Daniels, a renowned behavior analyst in the field of organizational behavior management, wrote about how behaviors can be divided into two categories: “have to do” vs. “want to do.” The “have to do” behaviors are those tasks people do because if they don’t, negative consequences will result (i.e., negative reinforcement). People put in minimal effort into “have to do” tasks because they just want “to get it over with.” The “want to do” behaviors are those things people do because positive results occur (i.e., positive reinforcement). People chose to put in more effort and time than needed into these tasks because they enjoy the results of task.

We want our learners to have lots of “want to do” behaviors. This type of positive programming is extremely important when teaching skills that need to be maintained and generalized and is an essential part of our teaching framework. If talking and learning is a “have to do” task, then learning will occur at a much slower rate and is less likely to be generalized. Take for example a school assignment that you disliked. Most likely, you did not put your “all” into that particular assignment. In fact, you may not even remember that much about it except that you disliked it and “had to do it.” Now think of a course or assignment you enjoyed. You may have gone above and beyond the requirements. Perhaps you even thought about the material outside of the classroom setting. You might even still be able to explain certain specific lessons and interesting facts you learned. This is how we want our learners to feel about what we teach them. The goal of a good behavior program is one that addresses the skill deficits of the learner by individualizing the teaching environment in such a way that makes learning fun and positive for the learner while still achieving stated goals.

What is verbal behavior?

The behavior analytic approach of focusing on function over form carries itself over to language and communication skills as well. Traditional theories of language focus on the form (i.e., structure) of language. In traditional theories, language is separated into two components: expressive and receptive. Expressive language focuses on speech production while receptive language focuses on understanding, listening, and writing. Though verbal behavior does consider the form of language there is a much greater emphasis on the function of language.

Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957) explains that language is a learned behavior and that it follows the same behavioral principles as all other behaviors. In the 1990’s, the use of Skinner’s theory to treat children with developmental disabilities was popularized by researchers and practitioners such as Drs. Jack Michael, Vincent Carbone, Mark Sundberg, and James Partington. Verbal behavior is defined as any behavior that is mediated (i.e. effected) by another person’s behavior.

Verbal behavior does not only apply to spoken language, but to all types of communication (e.g., waving at someone to get their attention, pushing someone to get them to leave, nodding “yes” or “no”, etc). Thus, the theory of verbal behavior is used to analyze both appropriate and inappropriate communication. Most people with language delays are communicating. The problem is that their verbal behavior (i.e. their form of communication) is socially inappropriate. Take the example of a child screaming. If the function of the child’s scream is to get attention, get their toy, or to not leave a store, then the child is communicating (i.e. the function is a communicative function). The problem is that this is not a socially appropriate means of communicating (i.e. the form of the communication is not the preferred form). Instead of screaming, it would be more appropriate for the child to say “Mommy, look at me!” or “I’m not ready to leave the store.” The goal of the behavior analyst in teaching language using the theory of verbal behavior is to replace inappropriate verbal behaviors with more appropriate verbal behaviors and to teach additional appropriate verbal behaviors.

It is important to be aware in this context that often one word can represent several different types of verbal behavior, all of which will need to be learned separately. Because, for the purposes of verbal behavior, a word is defined by its function and not just its form (sound or specific “topography”), the same word can have different functions based on why it is being said. For example, repeating the word “red” to mimic someone else saying “red” (an “echoic”) serves a very different function from saying “red” when asked, “What color candy do you want?” (a “mand”). Furthermore, being able to say “red” in these contexts does not mean that a person can say “red” when labeling the color of the apple on the table (a “tact”). These different functions are broken down within the theory of verbal behavior into different classifications of language. To understand the full meaning of a word, a person must thus be able to use the word in all the different language classifications (such as echoic, tact, mand, etc).

Many children with autism spectrum disorder lack responses in the different classes of language. In particular, they may have particular words in one category (e.g. “tact”) but not in other categories (e.g. “intraverbal” or “mand”). Not having adequate responding in all the different classes of language limits one’s ability to have conversations with others (see Language Classification Dialogue Handout for more information). This in turn, makes integration into society very difficult. It is the job of the behavior analyst to overcome this difficulty to the greatest extent possible given the cognitive abilities or level of autism of the client.

What is joint control?

Joint control is a behavior analytic description of comprehension and memory. Dr. Barry Lowenkron (the founder of the theory of joint control) defines joint control as occuring when a verbal response evoked by a sample stimulus is preserved by a self-duplic and then comes under the control of an additional comparison stimulus which simultaneously evokes a tact, textual, or intraverbal response (Lowenkron, 1997). Put in more layman’s terms, joint control explains how people follow novel instructions by repeating part or all of the instruction to themselves and then searching out items or activities which match what they are repeating and allow them to complete the instruction. A joint control event can be experience by the following activity.

Find the shape sequence: shape sequence

Among the options below:

sequence options

To find the sequence on the table, the sequence “circle, square, diamond, circle, diamond” is repeated over and over again (a “self-echoic”) then the sequences in the table are scanned by naming (“tacting”) the shapes in each sequence until one sequence matches the sequence being repeated. The joint control event is the moment when the sequence you are repeating matches the sequence you found in the table above. That joint control event likely evoked responses in you such as “There it is!”, “I found it!”or a nodding of the head, or pointing to the sequence (“autoclitics”). Because joint control does not focus on what is specifically being said but rather the generic event of two different functional responses coming together (i.e. matching) and then evoking another response such as “there it is!”, it explains in behavioral terms how people follow novel instructions.

Joint control occurs in all aspects of life. For example, joint control can be found in everyday incidents such as dialing a phone number, shopping for groceries, locating a parked car, following driving directions, etc. Many common behavioral objectives for children with autism require joint control, e.g. delayed finding of a sample, following multi-step directions, selecting items with multiple characteristics, etc. All these skills and many more can be taught to children with developmental disabilities and language delays using joint control. By using joint control to teach such skills, learners may generalize the skill across different environments.

Joint control also explains why it is difficult for people who have limited “tacts,” “duplic,” and “intraverbals” to develop more advanced receptive repertoires. The tools to “comprehend” what is being said to them are either dull or missing. So instead of waiting for the tools to sharpen by themselves, we help our learners sharpen and develop these tools. We then teach them how to use these tools to better understand the world around them using joint control.

For more information regarding joint control see Lowenkron, B. (1997). The role of joint control in the development of naming. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 68, 244-24. or visit his website: http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/zlowenk


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