Applied behavioural analysis (ABA) is an intervention – a way of enabling learning and development.

ABA involves teaching linguistic, cognitive, social and self-help skills across all settings and breaking down these skills into small tasks which are taught in a highly structured and hierarchical manner. There is a focus on rewarding, or reinforcing, desired behaviours and ignoring, re-directing or otherwise discouraging inappropriate behaviours.

ABA is the application of the ‘science of behaviour’, meaning it uses observation and measurement to understand people’s behaviour and how their learning is influenced. In the last ten years ABA has been associated with teaching children with autism. It was originally developed in the 1960s by Ivar Lovaas, a Norwegian psychologist; he developed a teaching application for people with autism as well as a curriculum of programmes and a teaching sequence for them. The practice of ABA has continued to evolve ever since.

In Roddensvale School, two teachers have had longitudinal training in ABA and work closely with classes and individual pupils to implement principles of ABA in school.  Staff have also taken advantage of courses offered by PEAT in feeding, toilet training and sleeping, as well as methods of recording.

Additionally, staff in school have liaised with parents and ABA therapists of children who are following home ABA programmes.  This allows pupils the opportunity to transfer and consolidate skills.

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is an approach based on the premise that behaviour can be influenced by changes in the environment, and by the reinforcing consequences of the behaviour.

Typically developing children learn without extra intervention – that is, the environment they are born into provides the right conditions to learn language, play, and social skills.

Children with autism learn much, much less from the environment. They are capable of learning, but it takes a very structured environment, one where conditions are optimised for acquiring the same skills that typical children learn ‘naturally.’

ABA is all about the rules for setting up the environment to enable our pupils to learn.

What happens in an ABA programme?

A behaviour analyst goes through the following stages when building an ABA programme:

  1. Collecting background information from parents, teachers
  2. Observing the child – collecting ABC information
  3. Working directly with the child
  4. Describing challenging behaviours
  5. Forming hypotheses about the meaning of those behaviours – what is the person gaining from enacting that behaviour?
  6. Identifying skill deficits
  7. Teaching new skills
  8. Collecting data, and analysing it to review progress

An ABA programme begins by comprehensively recording all aspects of the child – generating a record of where the child is now. In order to do this a therapist, or behaviour analyst, will observe the child working and playing with others in a variety of settings, consult with family members, teachers, and other professionals working with the child, and work directly with the child. This process will form a record which will include medical history, family history, and behavioural history amongst other things.

From this detailed snapshot of the child the behaviour analyst, or therapist, begins to make assessments about where there are skill deficits, and then sets about teaching these skills – initially through 1:1 (Discrete Trial) teaching sessions.

We shouldn’t think of an ABA program as just discrete trial teaching. Lovaas (among others) states clearly that a behavioural program is a comprehensive intervention, carried out in every setting that the child encounters, and at every available moment. The skills that are taught so efficiently in discrete trial sessions must be practiced and generalised in ‘natural’ settings.

For example, a child who does not know the difference between ‘yes please’ and ‘no thank you’ may slowly get a higher and higher percentage of right answers during table-top teaching sessions until he is considered to have ‘mastered’ that skill; but he will not go on to use ‘yes please’ and ‘no thank you’ appropriately without additional support in natural situations; it takes time to go from ‘mastery’ to ‘ownership.’ It takes trained and supportive people – parents, teachers, relatives, even peers – to help reinforce a wide range of appropriate behaviours in a variety of settings, until the level of reinforcement fades to a typical level – a social level (such as the smile you get when you greet someone).