Applied Behavior Analysis: Definition & Techniques

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

In this lesson, we will discuss applied behavior analysis, one of the most common and evidence-based methods used to treat Autism. Learn about the techniques that are used and more. Then, test your knowledge.


Tom and Nina have recently adopted a seven-year-old girl named Lisa who has Autism. Tom and Nina found a school they thought would be a great fit for Lisa. They were understandably shocked when they found out Lisa wasn't doing well at her new school. On several occasions, Lisa threw small items when she became angry. If even the slightest changes were made in the class schedule, Lisa became upset. Lisa also had trouble interacting and playing with her classmates, reading social cues, and making friendships with other students. Lisa refuses to remain in her seat for longer than 15 minutes. Lisa's school counselor believes Lisa could benefit from applied behavior analysis.



One of the most common and evidence-based methods used to treat Autism is applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis is a field in which systematic interventions are employed in order to produce positive and meaningful changes in behavior and to provide evidence that the interventions being used are responsible for the behavioral changes. It is important that the interventions used in applied behavior analysis lead to behaviors that are not only meaningful, but also socially significant. This means that the individual that is engaging in the behavior has to gain immediate and long-lasting benefits from participating.

Applied behavior analysis involves using behavioral principles in everyday life situations in order to eventually increase or decrease target behaviors. Like the name suggests, target behavior refers to a behavior that has been selected or ''targeted'' for change. For example, target behaviors for Lisa might include:

  • Lisa will remain in her seat during class for at least 1 hour,
  • Lisa will work cooperatively with peers in small group settings (i.e. share materials, allow peers to share their opinions),
  • Lisa will identify and understand various non-verbal social communication behaviors (i.e., tone of voice, facial expressions, special boundaries, and body orientation) by stating their implied meaning.

Applied behavior analysis is useful in helping people acquire skills in several areas, including language, social, self-help, and play skills. Research suggests that applied behavior analysis is effective in treating individuals with pervasive developmental disorders (i.e. Autism and Asperger's) and intellectual disability.

Let's look at some of the techniques that may be used to treat Lisa in applied behavior analysis.


Naturalistic Teaching Strategies

Naturalistic teaching strategies utilize events that naturally occur and motivational techniques in order to facilitate learning. The focus of these strategies is teaching the behavior in the context of the natural environment. These strategies are often employed at home, school, daycares, and during play.

Examples of naturalistic teaching strategies include:

  • Prompting: a parent or applied behavioral analysis gives the individual cues or guidance in order to get the individual to elicit the desired response. For example, Lisa's teacher may say ''Now it is time to let Bobby share, Lisa. So, I need you to be quiet, '' in order to help Lisa learn to let other members of the group express their ideas.
  • Fading: prompts are gradually reduced as the individual learns the behavior until the prompts are completely eliminated.
  • Shaping: behavior is modified by reinforcing a series of behaviors that increasingly approach the targeted behavior. For example, Lisa's teacher may give her a sticker for sitting in her seat for 40 minutes. When Lisa sits in her seat for 50 minutes, Lisa gets another sticker. Lisa continues to receive stickers every time she gets closer to the target behavior of sitting in her seat for a full hour.
  • Pivotal response training: program that targets ''pivotal'' behaviors (i.e. motivation to socially interact with others, the ability to respond to multiple cues, and self-management) that will facilitate widespread improvement in several other behaviors.

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