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Author Q&A: What does ABA look like in the classroom?

Find out in this Q&A with the author of Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom: A Guide to Improving Outcomes for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Q: Your new book Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom introduces an approach well known to clinicians but not so familiar to teachers. Can you explain briefly what applied behavior analysis is?

A: ABA is the science of applying principles of behaviorism to make meaningful changes in the lives of individuals. Implementing ABA interventions requires the selection of observable, measurable, and meaningful objectives. Clear teaching procedures are then developed that utilize evidence-based behavioral strategies.

Examples of behavioral strategies include, but are not limited to, positive reinforcement, shaping, prompt fading, and task analysis. Data are collected to determine that the intervention was responsible for the change in behavior, that the results were significant, and that the skills generalized across contexts.

Q: What settings have ABA interventions historically been used in?

A: was first used in clinical settings such as research institutions and medical facilities. Home-based and clinic-based one-on-one intensive ABA programs became popular for young children with autism in the 1990’s. Today many professionals and researchers agree that ABA is best implemented in natural settings across home, school, and community contexts.

Q: Does “ABA intervention” essentially equate to “explicit instruction”? How is it different?

A: ABA and explicit instruction are not the exact same thing. However, there is a strong connection. Most ABA interventions include explicit instruction in that the teaching procedures are clearly explained so that many can replicate them, and the procedures incorporate behavioral teaching strategies that are implemented in an explicit manner.

The difference is that for interventions to be considered ABA, they must also meet the seven dimensions of ABA—applied, behavioral, analytic, conceptual, technological, effective, and generality—while explicit instruction does not have that requirement. Also, not all ABA interventions include explicit instruction. For example, an intervention may consist of the use of extinction and differential reinforcement procedures but not include explicit instruction.

Q: Can you contrast a common classroom scenario in which ABA intervention is not incorporated with one in which it is?

A: Here is a scenario in which ABA is not incorporated to teach a student to raise her hand and wait to be called on:

The teacher tells the students that they must raise their hands and wait to be called on prior to beginning instruction. When a student does not do so, the teacher gives a reminder or a reprimand. No data is collected prior to this intervention to determine if it is working. The student continues to call out during lessons.

Here is a scenario in which ABA is incorporated to teach a student to raise her hand and wait to be called on:

Baseline data is collected to determine the student’s performance prior to intervention (number of times she raises her hand and waits to be called on during a 30 minute instructional lesson and the number of times she shouts out). A criterion for mastery is set: The student will raise her hand and wait to be called on 3-5 times per lesson with no shout outs.

Instructional procedures for teaching the student how to raise her hand and wait to be called on using video self-modeling, a social story, self-monitoring, and positive reinforcement are clearly explained and written down for the teacher(s).

Interventions are implemented across contexts and settings to promote generalization. Data is collected daily indicating the number of times the student raises her hand and waits to be called on during a 30-minute instructional lesson to monitor student progress and to make instructional decisions.

The student achieves mastery after 4 weeks of intervention and generalizes the skill across a variety of lessons with different teachers.

Q: In the course of a busy day, how does a teacher have time to keep track of something like that?

A: If that is the only goal that the teacher is collecting data on and it is only during whole group instruction, the teacher just has to tally each time the student raises her hand and waits to be called on. The fact of the matter is, if it is a goal, the student is probably not doing it very often if at all, so it may be only once or twice that the teacher is actually tallying. This can be done by putting paperclips or other small objects in one pocket and moving one to another pocket when the student displays the desired behavior. Another possibility is for a co-teacher or teacher assistant to take the data instead of the classroom teacher, or the student can take her own data using self-monitoring.

Q: For a teacher who has a student with autism in her classroom for the first time, what is the first step you recommend she take toward initiating ABA interventions?

A: The first step is to identify a professional who can assist her with the process. This can be a behavior analyst or a special education teacher or school psychologist with expertise in ABA. I suggest that the teacher choose one objective to focus on with one student initially to get comfortable with using ABA instruction.

Q: As with IEP goals, goals for ABA interventions must be “functional, developmentally appropriate, observable, measurable, and positively stated.” Can you provide an example of an intervention goal framed so that it meets those criteria (versus one that is not)?

A: Here is a goal that meets the criteria:

The student will respond to at least one request from a peer to play during each recess period by responding with positive verbalizations and/or actions for 5 consecutive school days.

The expectation is positively stated, specific, and can be observed and measured by all individuals the same way.

  • The objective is meaningful because when achieved, the student’s relationships with peers will be enhanced.
  • The goal is developmentally appropriate because the child has already demonstrated the ability to respond to requests to play from adults, but not with peers.
  • The general education teacher can easily record if the student meets the expectation during recess each day.

Here is a goal that does not meet the criteria:

The student will refrain from aggressive acts towards peers during recess 80% of the time.

This goal is not positively stated and is too vague. Different individuals will have different meanings for “aggressive acts.” What the student is expected to do would have to be much more clearly defined and must indicate what the student should do instead of displaying aggression. Recording the percentage of time a student is “refraining from aggressive acts” is not realistic for a general education teacher to do during recess.

Q: You discuss “hidden curriculum” skills for which students with ASD need explicit instruction to learn. What type of hidden curriculum skills do you mean?

A: Examples of “hidden curriculum” skills may include knowing social rules related to things such as using a public bathroom, eating in a cafeteria, or joining a conversation. Other examples may include knowing the best route for navigating from class to class, knowing the differences between how you communicate with adults vs. peers, and knowing that you don’t always say what you are thinking if it is going to hurt someone’s feelings.

Q: How did your own interest in ABA develop?

A: I was introduced to ABA when I was an undergraduate student and began working one-on-one with a child with autism in his home using discrete trial training. I continued working with many children on the autism spectrum using a variety of ABA instructional procedures because it was quite rewarding to be a part of the significant progress the children were making with the implementation of the interventions.

Q: In your experience, does ABA benefit only the students with autism?

A: ABA benefits all students who have an academic, behavioral, communication, or social need. By definition alone it means that you are applying principles of behaviorism to make meaningful changes in the lives of individuals.

ABA was not developed specifically for students with autism, but it is often utilized for students with autism because of its evidence of success. Many individuals ranging from young children to adults would benefit from ABA interventions.

About the Author

Debra Leach, Ed.D., BCBA is a board certified behavior analyst and assistant professor of special education at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She previously served as a public school teacher, an early intervention provider, and as the associate director for the Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disorders. Her main research interests include autism spectrum disorders, inclusion, applied behavior analysis, positive behavior supports, and early intervention.

Dr. Leach enjoys training pre-service teachers and working with school districts, families, and community groups to support the successful inclusion of children, adolescents, and adults with autism spectrum disorders across home, school, and community contexts.

Get additional tips about bringing ABA into your classroom in Dr. Leach’s blog.