The ABCs of ABA

If you work with students with autism, chances are you have either heard of, use, or integrate aspects of Applied Behavior Analysis into your teaching. But let’s get down to the basics. What is ABA and why does it work? Applied Behavior Analysis is the science of human behavior. ABA:

  • improves socially significant behaviors –  important behaviors! behaviors that impact the entire life of an individual
  • improves behaviors to a meaningful degree – who cares about little changes? Let’s see some big changes that actually make a difference. 
  • proves that change in behavior results from an intervention – this is where data comes in! You need to know what caused (or didn’t cause) the behavior change.
Still confused? Sounds like jargon but let’s break it down. 
ABA looks at the function of behaviors: Function = why you do something/what you get out of it/reinforcer
Let’s take an iPhone.
 The function of me dialing my phone is talk to someone.

 The function of me going on facebook is to stalk people.

The function of me pressing ‘decline’ is to avoid talking to someone annoying.
The function of me running over my iphone with my car is to crack my screen into a million pieces.
 So basically, everything everyone does results in some type of reinforcement or some reason why you do it. A key component of ABA is figuring out what these reinforcers are and manipulating them to cause change.
  • Determine what motivates the individual. What is the child getting out of doing this? Attention from others? Access to toys? Avoid something they don’t want to do?

What does the little boy get out of crying in the candy aisle?
  •  Manipulating the environment or setting. Maybe you don’t go down the candy aisle to avoid this issue. If a student becomes upset with sudden transitions, remove sudden transitions or plan for them. If a child always forgets his homework, add a visual prompt into his schedule.
  • Change the reinforcers that are keeping bad behavior going. Don’t give the crying kid candy, the sassy teenager attention, or the whining child an iPad – it’s a sure fire to ensure that individual will act that way again when they want something. Would you keep clicking the facebook button on your iPhone if it never brought you to facebook? No – eventually you would stop. 
  • Develop more appropriate alternative behaviors. The kid will still want candy. Some children (especially those with autism) need to be taught how to ask for something appropriately. Is your student hitting other students to get out of work? Teaching him how to ask for a break could eliminate that behavior. Is the only way your student with autism gets attention is when he bites himself? Teach him how to request attention. 
The key to ABA is consistent data collection. Through consistent data collection you will know if your interventions have actually worked and how much they worked. It won’t be one of those ‘I think it seems better things’ it will actually be better.
Those are the basics of the basics. Next week I am going to detail out specific behavior management strategies for behaviors that are reinforced by attention, escape, and sensory. I will also provide some useful tips on how to determine what the reinforcer is.
Hope this made sense! I’m a total ABA geek- I love it! Do use ABA practices in your classroom?


  1. So glad I found you today. My teaching bestie has a child with autism this and is not receiving much support from admin. I just emailed her your link 🙂 Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge!

    Kelley Dolling
    Teacher Idea Factory

  2. Thanks for passing along my info Kelley! Good luck with back to school 🙂

    – Sasha

  3. I am beginning a short term substituting position in a 9th-12th grade ASD classroom at an ASD Acadmey. I am so excited to be using my special education degree, and working with these students!! This post was a great review in the key points of ABA which I’ll be diving into next week 🙂 Thank you!

  4. Thanks Meg! Happy it was helpful!

  5. Hi! I am so glad I found this post! I was recently hired into a self contained room with 6 students with sever/moderate autism. Three of these students are kindergarteners, two are second graders, and one is a fourth grader. I affectionately call them the “bigs” and the “littles.” The three littles are non-verbal for the most part and require PCS books and visual prompts. One of the “bigs” is voluntarily non-verbal, but is perfectly capable. They had a teacher for until about 3 weeks ago that didn’t know what to do with them as she was a life skills teacher, so they really never had to do anything. They would scream and run and end up on the computer or iPad.
    I have three aides, but one is out of the class a lot taking students to their specials or story times, etc. Basically I have four students that drop to the floor, scream, run, hit, bite, and kick to get out of doing anythig but their preferred activities. Two of the littles seem to set off everyone else and just run and scream or drop to the floor and scream and then hit bite and kick. I just don’t have enough staff or time to work on each student and then there is the schedule. I can’t keep to it with all of the meltdowns. I also have the problem of trying to teach 3 different curriculums in the classroom. The teacher last year did everything strictly by the Teacch handbook, but with the kinders, I don’t know if I can. I am truly at a loss and do not know what to do, how do I get through some of these behaviors?
    Right now, nobody in that room is getting an education. We are merely surviving and putting out fires. The two littles that are having a difficult time are only on half days. I am thinking about having one come in the afternoon, which would give me more time to work one-on-one with their behaviors of avoidance. But I am not ABA trained. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do?

  6. Yikes! Sounds like you have your hands full! It sounds like the worst behaviors are task avoidance? Is that right? Right off that bat – I would put curriculum on the back burner and work on getting behaviors under control first. That will come later. I would figure out the highest preferred items/activities (sounds like maybe computer or ipad?) and limit them. Make them only contingent on work. Start SUPER small and easy. Something that is mastered and not challenging. Sounds like you need to first teach that work will result in reinforcement. Once you are able to have them doing easy and short work tasks you can later gradually increase the task demand. I like this type of reinforcement visual it gives a good visual aspect and will help when you are increasing work demand later. I also have this post on escape behaviors that might give some ideas: I know it always sounds scary to teachers to make the work super easy and short but you can always make it harder later! With some of my lower functioning students, I have had to really start at the super basics and providing reinforcement for one or two responses. Do you kids use a visual schedule? That may help to show a work/break routine. Hope this helps! email me if you have more questions – Good luck!!


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