ABA 101: An Overview of Applied Behavior Analysis

The science of behavior analysis studies how the environment can be manipulated to change behaviors (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).  The theories of applied behavior analysis (ABA) were developed to improve human behavior through directly implementing the principles of behaviorism (Axelrod, McElrath, & Wine, 2012). A major component of ABA is operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is when a behavior is altered because of the stimulus change that immediately followed the behavior’s occurrence (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).  Currently, research shows that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) show significant gains when instructed using the principles of ABA (Axelrod, McElrath, & Wine, 2012).

The first publication detailing the components of ABA was published in 1968 with Baer, Wolf, and Risley’s paper entitled “Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis.” This article outlined seven dimensions that must be met when implementing single subject research using ABA. These dimensions were later applied to intervention programs for individuals with ASD and other disabilities. The table below provides a brief summary of each dimension (Leach, 2010).




The interventions developed are meant to have a positive and significant impact on the individual’s life


Behaviors, goals, and objectives are clearly defined so that they can be measured and observed by multiple people.


The intervention directly correlates with the behavior change, based on the collected data.


All strategies and interventions are research-based and emphasize principles of behaviorism


Teaching procedures are explicitly written so that they can be carried out the same way by different people


There is a significant positive change in the behavior that is directly correlated to the intervention.


Learned skills can be demonstrated across settings and contexts, and maintained over time.


When working with individuals with ASD, it is imperative that we follow these seven dimensions as a framework for instruction and intervention. Over the last 30 years, a variety of intervention approaches for children with ASD have been developed based on the principles of ABA. These approaches include: Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT), Pivotal Response Training (PRT), Incidental Teaching (IT), and Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB). These four approaches have become the foundation of ABA interventions for individuals with ASD.  Learning about the strategies utilized in these approaches allows practitioners working with students with ASD to design quality, individualized interventions that can be implemented across a variety of natural contexts.

Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) is an instructional strategy that breaks skills into smaller tasks and uses direct instruction to enable the student to master each skill (Leach, 2010). An A-B-C (antecedent, behavior, consequence) format is used during DTT. This is where the teacher provides the student with a direction or other prompting stimulus (A), the student responds appropriately (B), and the teacher gives the student immediate positive reinforcement based on that response (C). If the student does not respond to the antecedent appropriately, then the teacher gives a verbal, gestural, or physical prompt so that the student can successfully engage in the desired behavior.

Another application of ABA is Pivotal Response Training (PRT). PRT targets five main areas: motivation, responsivity to multiple cues, self-management, self-initiations, and empathy (Leach, 2010). By targeting these pivotal areas in natural contexts, teachers can change behaviors in other areas. PRT has also shown to enhance generalization of new skills in students with ASD and can be implemented through peer-mediated interventions (Pierce & Schreibman, 1997).

Incidental Teaching (IT) is an application of ABA that promotes social and communication interactions in natural settings while increasing motivation and generalization (Leach, 2010). This approach teaches skills to a child by taking advantage of the child’s specific interests or an activity that he/she is engaged with (Steege, Mace, Perry, & Longenecker, 2007).  The child is given opportunities to communicate wants and needs while the caregiver or teacher is following the child’s lead (Leach, 2010). Like PRT, IT can be implemented through peer-mediated interventions.

Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB) is an ABA approach that teaches language acquisition by combining B.F. Skinner’s classification of language with the A-B-C format of DTT (Leach, 2010). The targeted skills of AVB include: requesting, labeling, imitating, and engaging in conversations. In AVB, students are given reinforcement through the social interactions with the interventionists. Unlike DTT, AVB occurs in one-to-one settings and within the child’s natural environments.

As the number of students diagnosed with ASD continues to grow at a rapid rate, it is vital that caregivers, special education teachers, general education teachers, and related service providers have a clear understanding of effective research-based teaching strategies. There is strong research support for using ABA interventions with individuals with ASD across the lifespan. When creating an individualized ABA program for students with ASD, there are a multitude of research-based teaching strategies such as those used in DTT, PRT, IT, and AVB that can be utilized to address the unique needs of each child.  The purpose of ABA interventions is to set meaningful goals, design behavioral interventions to address the goals, implement the interventions across a variety of natural contexts, and monitor progress to ensure the skills are mastered, maintained over time, and generalized in meaningful ways.


Axelrod, S., McElrath, K., & Wine, B. (2012). Applied behavior analysis: Autism and beyond. Behavioral Interventions, 27(1), 1-15.

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. (1968). Current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91 – 97.

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Leach, D. (2010). Bringing ABA into your inclusive classroom: A guide to improving outcomes for students with autism spectrum disorders. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Pierce, K. & Schreibman, L. (1997). Multiple peer use of pivotal response training to increase social behaviors of classmates with autism: results from trained and untrained peers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30(1), 157-160.

Steege, M.W., Mace, F.C., Perry, L., & Longenecker, H. (2007). Applied behavior analysis: Beyond discrete trial teaching. Psychology in the Schools, 41(1), 91-99.

Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed.


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