What is ABA?

4 minutes

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a systematic and evidence-based approach to understanding and modifying human behavior. It has been widely recognized and employed as an effective intervention in various fields, including education, psychology, healthcare, and autism therapy. ABA is not just a collection of techniques; it is a comprehensive science that delves into the complexities of human behavior to bring about positive change. In this blog, we will explore the fundamental principles, techniques, and applications of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Understanding Behavior

Before diving into ABA, it’s crucial to understand what behavior is. Behavior, in the context of ABA, refers to any observable and measurable action or response of an individual. This includes everything from simple actions like raising a hand to complex behaviors such as having a conversation. ABA is particularly interested in behavior because that can be observed and quantified, making it more amenable to scientific analysis and intervention.

The Fundamental Principles of ABA

  • Behavior is Observable and Measurable: ABA focuses on observable behaviors because they can be precisely defined and measured. This measurement is crucial for assessing the effectiveness of interventions and tracking progress over time.
  • Behavior is Determined: ABA operates on the premise that all behavior is determined by environmental factors. These factors include antecedents (events that occur before a behavior) and consequences (events that occur after a behavior). Understanding these determinants is essential for behavior modification.
  • Behavior Can Be Modified: A core tenet of ABA is that behavior can be modified through systematic and scientifically validated interventions. By manipulating antecedents and consequences, desired behaviors can be increased, and problematic behaviors can be reduced or eliminated.

Key Techniques in ABA

  • Positive Reinforcement: This involves presenting a desirable stimulus immediately after a behavior to increase the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. For example, praising a student for completing their homework may increase the likelihood of them doing it consistently.
  • Negative Reinforcement: This entails removing an aversive stimulus after a behavior, which also increases the likelihood of that behavior happening again. An example would be turning off a loud alarm after a person fastens their seatbelt, thus reinforcing seatbelt use.
  • Punishment: While often misunderstood, punishment in ABA refers to the presentation of an aversive stimulus or the removal of a desirable one to decrease the likelihood of an undesirable behavior. It should be used cautiously and sparingly. Most behaviors can be changed with positive interventions, only.
  • Extinction: This involves withholding reinforcement for a behavior, leading to a decrease in the frequency of that behavior. It works on the principle that behaviors that are not reinforced will eventually diminish. This intervention is not used in isolation and there are several ways to do this that follow a client-centered approach.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Applications of ABA

  • Education: ABA is widely used in education to teach various skills to students with diverse abilities. It is particularly effective in special education settings for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders.
  • Autism Therapy: ABA is perhaps best known for its role in autism therapy. Applied Behavior Analysis can help individuals with ASD acquire communication, social, and daily living skills while reducing challenging behaviors.
  • Healthcare: ABA is used in healthcare settings to improve patient compliance with medical treatments and to address behavioral issues related to physical and mental health conditions.
  • Organizational Behavior Management: In the business world, ABA principles are applied to improve workplace behavior, increase productivity, and enhance job satisfaction.
  • Criminal Justice: ABA techniques are also employed in correctional facilities to reduce recidivism rates and promote prosocial behaviors among inmates.

Photo by Anna Kolosyuk on Unsplash


Applied Behavior Analysis is a powerful and versatile science that has far-reaching applications. It’s rooted in the understanding that behavior can be studied, modified, and improved by manipulating environmental factors. Whether in education, healthcare, or various other fields, ABA provides a structured and evidence-based approach to promote positive behavioral change. By recognizing the determinants of behavior and applying appropriate techniques, individuals and professionals can harness the potential of ABA to achieve meaningful and lasting improvements in behavior and quality of life.

Amanda Fishley, M.A., BCBA, COBA

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