Many people hear Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and think that it is "doggie style" training for children that have Autism. It is definitely not. While I was working at the Bay School in Santa Cruz, I was able to learn about ABA while working under a Board certified Behavior Analyst. I worked primarily with children that were under five in the Early Intervention Classroom.
My experience was amazing. I saw each child grow in all areas of development. Children that were not verbal were able to begin to vocalize, those that could not reciprocate in relationships began to seek out attention. It was at the Bay School that I became a firm believer in early intervention.
ABA principles are utilized everyday in many different circumstances. The major premise of ABA is that each and every behavior is reinforced either by positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Behavior is increased by the presentation (positive reinforcement) or removal (negative reinforcement) of an object. The trick is to find something that is super motivating to the person that you are trying to increase behavior in when utilizing positive reinforcement.
Let's say that you want to increase the likelihood that Timmy will complete his school work without fussing by using positive reinforcement. What is the most important thing to Timmy, what is his "carrot." You need a big enough carrot for him to comply. Let's suppose that he loves his video games. Now you link playing his video game to finishing his homework. Little Timmy will be reinforced with video game play ONLY after he completes his homework. The trick is to not let Timmy play too long, then you might weaken the reinforcer. You also do not want to allow Little Timmy to play at other times. That will increase the likelihood that he will STAY motivated for his video games. Be sure to amp up the verbal praise...get REALLY excited when there is compliance. Are you beginning to see the value of ABA principles?
What about negative reinforcement? Well, let's say that Little Timmy throws a fit and screams when he has to put his shoes on. Mom, who is embarrassed by this behavior, allows Timmy to not put on his shoes. Here we can see that Mom has unwittingly utilized negative reinforcement with Little Timmy. Timmy's screaming caused Mom to allow him to escape the demand to "put your shoes on." Timmy has learned that if he engages in this behavior he will NOT have to put the shoes on.
This is where it is important to understand the ABC's of ABA. Collecting this data can help us see what the function of the behavior is. There are four main functions of behavior: escape, attention, access to something and sensory need. The A in ABC's of ABA stands for antecedent. Antecedent just means what happened BEFORE the behavior you are looking to change, by being specific we can see patterns that occur. The B in the ABC's of ABA stands for behavior. What is the specific, observable behavior? When we look at a behavior we have to look at it in a non-judgmental manner and describe what we see. The C in the ABC's of ABA stands for consequence. That means what happened right after the behavior. It is important to be very specific here as well.
Let's talk about Timmy again. Timmy's mother reports that he has been having increased "meltdowns." Mom begins to collect data on an ABC data form when the "meltdowns" occur. Mom notices that every time before the "meltdown" she is doing something, talking on the phone, doing laundry or cooking. She records Timmy's behavior in a non-judgmental, observable manner. Timmy drops to the floor, kicks his legs, screams and rolls back and forth. Now Mom can be clear about the specific behavior she wants to change. The consequence that is noted, is that mom stops what she is doing and picks Timmy up. Hmmm...do you see what is going on here? What type of function is this behavior serving for Timmy? Yep, it is attention.
Every time Mom stops what she is doing she is negatively reinforcing Little Timmy. He learns that when he engages in "meltdowns" that Mom will stop what she is doing and give him the attention that he desires. What is Mom to do? This will not be easy. Mom will need to continue to do what she is doing regardless of Timmy's meltdowns. She will need to be consistent to extinguish this behavior. What if Mom decides to give in to Timmy a few days a week? Well, she is teaching Timmy that his behavior WORKS. Now poor Mom will have to work even harder to extinguish the behavior. If Mom allows Timmy to "meltdown" for five minutes and then give in, it will be at LEAST a five minute "meltdown" next time.
Mom could, of course, choose to use punishment to decrease the behavior, such as timeouts. Mom could also utilize positive reinforcement, making a chart or giving Timmy a treat for every five minutes he is quiet while she is busy. I myself prefer to utilize positive reinforcement first, then negative reinforcement and finally punishment.
When you begin to think about how a behavior is reinforced you see many relevant situations where ABA principles could be utilized. What about behaviors that our spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend engage in? Are we reinforcing their behaviors at times? Looking at the function of behaviors help us to understand a need that is not being met. How can we increase attention at other times with our children to help alleviate acting out behavior?
Of course there is much, much more to ABA than this. I hope that you have begun to see the daily implications that positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment have in our daily lives!