ABA in Action

September 30, 2019

Advancements in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) have resulted in the discovery of many effective teaching strategies.  In this article, we offer a snapshot of these techniques to help you understand ABA.

Positive reinforcement is at the heart of ABA

A primary component of virtually all ABA practices is reinforcement.  When an individual engages in any behavior, the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future increases when it is followed by a pleasant consequence. For example, when the individual follows directions or attempts tasks that are new or more difficult, it is important to provide positive feedback. This feedback can take many forms and may include verbal praise, social attention such as a ‘thumbs up’ and a smile, or access to a favorite item or activity.

Providing positive reinforcement helps to clarify expectations and gives the individual information about what they should do, rather than focusing on things that (s)he shouldn’t do. Effective use of individualized reinforcement with other ABA methods contributes to making treatment enjoyable for the learner and maximizes progress.

Some additional concepts and procedures within ABA include, but are not limited to the following:

Task Analysis & Chaining*
Discrete Trial Instruction*
Activity Schedules
Verbal Behavior
Pivotal Response Training
Natural Environment Training
Incidental Teaching
Token Economy
Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) & Intervention*


*See below for an illustration of these concepts and procedures.  We’ll be adding more examples to this article in as we build out this beginner’s guide of ABA in action.  Be sure to check back soon.

Here are some simple snapshots of ABA in action

These examples are for illustration only and would involve more detail when put into practice.   



Instead of waiting until a new skill is done perfectly, it is important to provide encouragement for working towards the goal.  When using shaping, a target skill is identified and broken down into smaller steps.  As the learner masters each step, his/her responses are reinforced.  Once (s)he learns the next step, no or less reinforcement is provided for the earlier steps.  Through this process, the learner begins to demonstrate more complex responses.

This is an example of shaping communication skills:

Currently, your child takes your hand and leads you to the refrigerator when he’s hungry.  He places your hand on the item he wants.  This is reinforced by giving him the food he desires.  The long-term goal is that he will learn to ask for what he wants, and the steps needed to achieve that may include pointing to the item, requesting the item by naming it, and eventually asking for it with a full question.

Through teaching, the child initially learns to point to the item he wants.  Pointing to the desired food item is now reinforced by giving him what he wants, whereas taking your hand and placing it on the item is no longer reinforced by giving him the food.  Then, the next step toward the goal is taught, and the same process continues.  The child is working towards more independent choice-making and requesting skills through shaping.

Task Analysis

Task Analysis & Chaining

A complex task is broken down into smaller steps and then taught one step at a time, ultimately resulting in a “chain” of appropriate steps to complete the task.  The steps, or sequence of skills, is called a task analysis.  It is created based on the learner’s current skill level and experience with the task, so the number of steps in the task analysis could vary for different individuals.

This is an example of a task analysis for brushing teeth:

  1. Pick up toothbrush
  2. Turn on water
  3. Wet toothbrush
  4. Put toothpaste on toothbrush
  5. Brush front of teeth
  6. Brush inside teeth
  7. Brush tops of teeth
  8. Rinse
  9. Spit
  10. Turn off water

Reinforcement is provided after the individual demonstrates each step and gradually faded as (s)he becomes more independent.

Discrete Trial

Discrete Trial Instruction

In DTI, a specific instruction or cue is provided, the teacher helps or prompts the individual (as necessary), the individual responds, and the instructor or parent provides a positive or neutral consequence.  This sequence is repeated and intermixed with other objectives until the individual can respond independently.  Some skills may be learned quickly, and others may require many repetitions over several days.

This is an example of discrete trial instruction for teaching a child early toy play skills:

Instruction: “Do this.” Instructor pushes a toy train through a tunnel.

Response: The child pushes the train through the tunnel (with instructor guidance).

Consequence: “Wow!  The train went through the tunnel!” (Instructor may also present a tangible reward.)

The child learns how to play with the train set appropriately, through steps that are first taught individually and then combined.  After some practice, the instructor may work with the child and a sibling to learn how to play with the toy together.


Functional Behavior Assessment & Intervention

Before treating challenging behaviors, it is important to determine the “function” of the behavior or why it “works” for the learner.  In ABA programs, the challenging behavior is observed, as well as what happens before and after the behavior, commonly referred to as the ABC’s (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence).  Repeated observations can show patterns of behavior (i.e., when the behavior is likely and unlikely to occur) and give us ideas for more effective ways to respond.

This is an example of assessing challenging behavior:

The teacher says, “It’s time to turn off the computer.” (Antecedent)

The student gets up, knocks over the chair, and falls to the floor. (Behavior)

The teacher repeats the request and prompts the student to pick up the chair and turn off the computer. (Consequence)

This example shows only one episode of a challenging behavior.  Behavior analysts review multiple episodes to look for any patterns in the A-B-C sequence to determine the function of the behavior for the individual.  This information is used in the development of an appropriate behavior plan.

For additional information about ABA and how to get started, contact Autism New Jersey’s Helpline 800.4.AUTISM. Our online referral database can connect you to behavior analysts in your area.