ABA 101

For parents that are new to this topic, we wanted to offer a basic overview of ABA and the different strategies that are popular in this field. While we hope that the content below is informative, we believe that the parent training we provide will help with true mastery of the subject.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Behavior Analysis is the study of learning and behavior. Applied behavior analysis is an evidence-based, scientific approach that applies principles of learning theory in a systematic way to create meaningful behavior change. Based on years of peer-reviewed research, ABA aims to both increase socially important behaviors and decrease any behaviors that may impede on learning or safety. ABA therapy is tailored according to everyone’s needs and uses child-specific interests and desires to increase or decrease targeted behaviors. As an objective discipline, ABA relies on continuous measurement and objective evaluation of behavior. ABA is the only treatment that has been clinically shown to lead to sustained improvement in the behavior of children with autism and is supported by many governmental agencies, scientific institutions, and professional organizations.

Here’s a link to a collection of several sources that speak to the efficacy of utilizing ABA with patients with autism:


The simplest breakdown of ABA is that there is an antecedent (something that happens before behavior that serves as a signal) for every behavior as well as a consequence that can serve as reinforcement or punishment. Reinforcement increases the likelihood of the child doing that behavior in the future while punishment decreases the likelihood of the child doing that behavior in the future. You may hear a lot of terms that refer to different behavior analytic approaches to teach skills, including (but not limited to): Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT), Verbal Behavior (VB) therapy, Natural Environment Teaching (NET), Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) and Fluency-Based Instruction. Each uses a specific method of instruction and all are based on the principles of ABA.

What is Discrete Trial Training (DTT)?

Often, when most people think of ABA, they think of Discrete Trial Teaching. DTT is a form of instruction that focuses on breaking down entire skills into several smaller steps and building them up step by step until the whole skill is mastered. An example of this teaching style can be shown with the idea of learning how to imitate an action (e.g., clapping hands). The clinician will provide the antecedent (the movement the clinician wants the child to imitate), will then prompt the child to engage in the correct response, followed by providing reinforcement and feedback.

What is Verbal Behavior (VB) Therapy?

Verbal Behavior therapy treats learning language just like learning any other behavior.  VB aims to teach learners how to use language based on manipulating the environment (manipulating the antecedents and consequences of behavior). We want to clarify that language is not merely spoken, but also includes actions, such as gesturing. Created by the well-known psychologist and behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, VB therapy aims to show that words are more than just labels and also explains why we use words. VB therapy focuses on four different language types:

  1. Mand: a request or demand. Example: “Cookie,” to ask for a cookie.
  2. Tact: a label such as identifying sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or feelings. Example: seeing an airplane and saying “airplane”, smelling flowers and saying “smells good”, or hearing a dog barking and saying “a dog”
  3. Intraverbal: an answer to a question, or completing someone else’s sentence. Example: How old are you? “Five.”
  4. Echoic: a repeated, imitated or echoed, word. Example: You say cookie and the child says “cookie” (important as the student needs to imitate to learn)

If you want a more comprehensive summary, we think this guide is a great resource:


What is Natural Environment Teaching (NET)?

Unfortunately, many therapy programs only teach in a highly structured setting and fail to teach skills in the learner’s natural environment, leading to a lack of generalization. As a result, the child is only able to perform the skill in the environment where the skill was taught and sometimes only in the presence of the specific clinician. Simply put, NET prevents these issues from arising as NET occurs when a trainer incorporates ABA in the learner’s natural environment by capturing his or her motivation in that moment to teach a new skill.

What is Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)?

Pivotal Response Treatment advocates for the focus on certain “pivotal” behavioral skills and that progress made with these skills will open the floodgates for improvement in other social, communicative, and behavioral areas that are not specifically targeted. The four pivotal learning variables are motivation, responding to multiple cues, self-management, and self-initiations. In practice, training is driven by the learner, meaning that he or she plays a crucial role in determining the activities and objects that will be used in the PRT exchange. Attempts at the target behavior are rewarded with a natural reinforcer (e.g., if a child attempts to request for a stuffed animal, the child receives the animal, not a piece of candy or some other unrelated reinforcer). PRT is one of the most comprehensive and empirically supported treatment programs.

What is Fluency-Based Instruction?

Fluency can most easily be defined as accuracy plus speed. A fluency program looks to improve the frequency of correct responding that can be provided within a specific amount of time to build a skill to become second nature. While we believe in educating parents on the various programs available, we want to note that there is not a strong emphasis on fluency-based instruction among Teamwork’s clinicians. This is because there is little empirical support that this strategy helps for any other reason other than increased practice and more frequent reinforcement.

How can ABA help?


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