Wed | Jan 23, 2019

ABA: Changing behavior using science

Published:Tuesday | May 19, 2015 | 11:02 PMKimeisha Chambers

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a field of behavioural psychology which focuses on the application of research-supported principles and laws of behaviour to the natural setting - for example, home, school, workplace and in everyday life.

The most common use of ABA is with children with autism - from intensive early intervention programmes, to social skills development, academics, and job training. However, this is not the only area in which ABA is used effectively. Beyond autism, ABA is applied in all areas of mental health as well as in areas such as organisational behaviour management (OBM); education - both special education and mainstream; health and wellness - healthy eating, exercise, and so on; substance abuse, animal training, parenting, language acquisition, gerontology, and even sports; to name a few.

The key to ABA's wide scope is its foundation in scientific research on the principles of behaviour - principles such as reinforcement and punishment, which guide how behaviour is learnt and maintained over time. In other words, these principles determine whether behaviour will continue to occur or stop happening.

ABA is also often used to teach new behaviours or skills. We all behave, humans and animals alike, whether it be acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. We behave at home, at school, in the workplace, and even when we are alone. Once we are a living being, we engage in behaviour and our behaviours are guided by the principles upon which ABA is based. As a result, ABA has over the years been found to be effective in a wide range of fields.




In the field of mental health, behaviour analyst works alongside other professionals, such as clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, with individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, mental retardation, social and emotional disorders, and other clinical conditions.

Here, the role of the behaviour analyst is to design interventions that target behaviours associated with these diagnoses - aggression, self-harm, negative self-talk, etc. The same basic principles of behaviour apply here, and research has supported the effectiveness of ABA in clinical settings.




Organisational behavior management is a growing subfield of ABA. Here, ABA is used to develop programmes that serve to improve individual and group performance in the workplace, as well as promote safety and productivity. The areas where ABA can be applied include performance management strategies, behavioural systems analysis - seeing the organisation as a system whose individual parts interact and impact the whole - and behaviour-based safety protocols such as the appropriate use of medical equipment in hospitals. Within these areas, the same basic principles of behaviour are employed as they relate to effective staff training and feedback, as well as measurement of clear goals that are used to determine sound performance and productivity.




ABA in education is a fast growing area of application. Currently, a large number of degree programmes in education - specifically special education - have an ABA component to their course load. More and more special education teachers are being exposed to ABA in some way, and are using the many research-based teaching strategies in their classrooms. Strategies such as discrete trial training, token economy systems, and fluency-based instruction. In some cases, the tools that behaviour analysts use to assess students' skill-sets, such as the assessment of basic language and learning skills, are used by special education teachers to identify target areas for each student.

Some are also being trained in basic behaviour management techniques that can be used in the classroom to manage problem behaviours and promote more appropriate behaviours. In some areas of the United States, some school districts employ behaviour analysts, who cover a specific set of schools and are in charge of responding to any behavioural concern that may arise.

In other areas of education there are specialised schools which are designed specifically for children with developmental and learning disabilities. Many of these schools are run by behaviour analysts or have behaviour analysts on staff, who design individualised academic programmes for each student.




A large number of research in ABA has been conducted on healthy eating habits, dieting and exercise, stress reduction, obesity management, eating disorders, smoking cessation, and alcohol consumption, among others. ABA is applied here through the restructuring of one's environment in such a way to promote healthy habits and an overall healthy lifestyle. Within this field, practitioners have used strategies such as regular scheduling, reward systems, behaviour tracking systems, penalties, group and individual interventions, goal setting, and environmental adjustments, to name a few.




In the early years of behaviour analysis, founding-father B.F. Skinner, and many of the pioneers in the field, conducted their basic research with animals. It is through much of these research that the basic principles of behaviour were identified. Today, those same principles are used to train animals such as dogs, bees, parrots, sea lions, horses, monkeys, dolphins, even elephants. Animals have been trained to communicate with each other using devices, differentiate between a variety of objects, engage in certain behaviours on command, manipulate objects a certain way, etc. In zoos and veterinary medicine, ABA principles have been applied in the safe and humane adaptation of exotic animals to their zoo homes. Where once, drugs had to be used to sedate animals and allow for safe movement, principle of reinforcement and conditioning are now used; reducing the potential harm drugging may have on the animal.




Behavioural gerontology is the application of ABA to the understanding of the psychological and social factors that come with ageing. Here, behaviour analysts work with senior individuals, targeting a range of psychological challenges, including mental illness, dementia, late-life depression, and anxiety. ABA is also used in improving exercise and healthy dieting, regaining lost skills - such as walking and continence, and more independent self-care practices - teeth brushing, cleaning up after oneself, getting dressed.




The application of ABA in sports has been gaining traction. Research conducted assesses the effectiveness of ABA principles in improving performance in a variety of sporting activities such as surfing, football, gymnastics, tennis, swimming, and soccer, to name a few. Much of this research has targeted the refinement of good technique that allows for proper execution and overall performance. In some cases where individuals have lost the ability to physically perform a certain sport, ABA is used to retrain the skills necessary to perform the sport.

With its foundation in research, and its focus on observable and measurable behaviour targeted for improvement to a meaningful degree, ABA has, over the years, demonstrated just how wide a scope of application it has, and continues to make its mark in a variety of areas.

- Kimeisha S. Chambers is a final year student, pursuing a Master's Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Email feedback to;