Many teachers already know of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as the science of applying principles of behavior change to affect socially significant behaviors. ABA-based strategies are used to either increase skills or prevent and decrease maladaptive responses. Its principles are in use across many different fields, including special education. Special education teachers may be familiar with ABA from being part of a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) for challenging behaviors, but there is more to the science of ABA that can help a student in the classroom; for instance, it can be used as a teaching tool, a preventative tool or to maintain and generalize skills already learned. The following are some ways in which ABA principles can be applied to the special education classroom.
Pairing is the process of associating fun, good and meaningful experiences with a student’s teachers and support staff. In the beginning of establishing the teacher-student relationship, it can be beneficial to schedule time in the day to interact with the student using their preferred items or activities and/or talk to the student about their favorite things (e.g., TV shows, music), showing an interest in what they’re doing or saying. During this period of time, these preferred activities are offered non-contingently and little to no demands are placed upon the student. Once the educator has established himself or herself as “the giver of the goods,” then instructions and work expectations can be introduced. Students will be less resistant to the work because they’ve experienced that the teacher is also a fun person to be with, not just the person who assigns them work.
Plan for Prompts
You may have heard that the goal of special education teachers and paraprofessionals is to work ourselves out of a job–in other words, being there to help and prompt, but doing it in a way such that the student won’t need our help in the future. Prompts are cues that assist the learner in responding correctly or most appropriately for the situation so that they may experience success. Prompts can be verbal (e.g., giving instructions for each step), visual (e.g., photographs, signs, labels), gestural (e.g., pointing to the correct response, directing a student’s attention to the material), environmental (e.g., placing materials closer to where the student will need them) or physical (e.g., tap on the elbow, hand-over-hand guidance). They are supposed to be temporary, but can easily become part of the response chain; this is what is known as prompt dependency. In order to prevent this from occurring, it is beneficial to list and discuss with all the support staff the type of prompt(s) to be used when teaching a particular skill, how long to wait before prompting and the criteria for fading prompts down a prompting hierarchy (for example, after two consecutive correct responses using a verbal prompt, fade to a gestural prompt) or to something more likely to be found in the student’s home, school or community environment (e.g., signs, material placement). Staff will need to monitor the performance of their students in order to know when to fade their prompts. (See “Gather and Monitor Data,” below.)
Throughout the school day, teaching staff will observe a variety of behaviors and student responses. Some of them will be more desirable than others. Differential reinforcement is a plan that entails reinforcing one set of behaviors and withholding reinforcement for another (usually, the less desirable ones); thus, one set of behaviors increases while the other decreases. It is also the process behind shaping new skills, as an increased expectation is reinforced while performance that does not meet the new criterion is not. In order to improve the effectiveness of differential reinforcement it is essential to have: a) team involvement, in which everyone who comes into contact with the student knows about and is invested in the target behaviors to reinforce, as well as those not to reinforce; b) consistent responses by all when either set of behaviors is demonstrated; and c) a shift in the balance of reinforcement so that positive or newly-taught behaviors are reinforced more often than negative behaviors. As an example, you may have a student who swears to get a reaction and attention from staff. Use of differential reinforcement would mean that other forms of getting attention (raising a hand, telling a joke, sharing a story, showing work) should be reinforced more often than swearing. This involves a concerted effort by all staff to “catch” the student using more desirable attention-getting behaviors so that the balance shifts from swearing to these newly-shaped behaviors.
Gather and Monitor Data
One of the basic tenets of ABA is the need to demonstrate effectiveness by measuring responses and concluding whether or not what is being done is working. This is achieved through gathering data on the behaviors and performance of students before, during and after a program is implemented. A variety of dimensions of behavior can be measured depending on the goal of the program; for instance, one can measure frequency, duration, response time, independent vs. prompted skills or correct vs. incorrect answers. The concern, of course, is what to measure, how to measure it, when and for how long, Again, a team approach to discussing and assigning a simple yet efficient means of gathering data throughout the school day (but not necessarily all day) will help to ensure that the data will be of use to you. Data can then be graphed and analyzed for patterns and trends; this is an excellent source of feedback for staff, students and parents about what is working and not working. Regular and frequent monitoring of this data will ensure that effective strategies remain in place and that ineffective practices are discontinued. It will also help to determine if and when criteria have been met, which results in changes to a program (e.g., when to fade prompts or increase expectations).
The above is just a small sample of how ABA can benefit a student’s programming and skill acquisition. Your school district may have a behavior resource team or Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on staff to assist in the development of behavior plans and to share other ABA resources for the classroom.
For more information on ABA in the classroom:
- “Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers” (9th ed) by Paul A. Alberto and Anne C. Troutman
- “Understanding Applied Behavior Analysis: An Introduction to ABA for Parents, Teachers and Other Professionals” by Albert Kearney