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Monday 25 July 2016

ABA: The Building Blocks of Teaching

If you teach Special Education, or have ever had a student with Autism in your class, then you most likely have heard the term ABA.  But do you really know what ABA is?   In my position, I train and consult to a lot of EAs and teachers and it surprises me how little they really know about ABA.  I mean, after all, ABA is one of the most effective teaching methods for students with ASD.  But, besides that ABA principles are really just good teaching practices, period!  Every teacher uses some form of ABA in their classrooms, whether they know it or not.  So today I'd like to take a closer look at what ABA is.

ABA is the only therapy with more than 30 years of research proving its effectiveness for children with Autism and other developmental disorders.

ABA, or Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy, is the science of human behaviour.  It is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviours to a meaningful degree.   "Socially significant behaviors" include reading, academics, social skills, communication, and adaptive living skills. Adaptive living skills include gross and fine motor skills, eating and food preparation, toileting, dressing, personal self-care, domestic skills, time and punctuality, money and value, home and community orientation, and work skills.
Over the past 30 years, several thousand published research studies have documented the effectiveness of ABA across a wide range of:

  • populations (children and adults with mental illness, developmental disabilities and learning disorders)
  • interventionists (parents, teachers and staff)
  • settings (schools, homes, institutions, group homes, hospitals and business offices), and
  • behaviors (language; social, academic, leisure and functional life skills; aggression, self-injury, oppositional and stereotyped behaviors)

ABA treatment can include any of several established teaching tools, including discrete trial training, natural environment teaching, and the Floortime model.

Discrete trial teaching

The most common and distinguishing type of intervention based on applied behavior analysis is discrete trial teaching. It is what people most often think of when you say "ABA" or "Lovaas method." It is a mistake, however, to think of an ABA program as just DT teaching. Lovaas (among others) notes very clearly that a behavioral program is a comprehensive intervention, carried out, as much as possible, in every setting, every available moment. The skills that are taught so efficiently in discrete trial drills must be practiced and generalized in natural settings.

A discrete trial is a single cycle of a behaviorally-based instruction routine. A particular trial may be repeated several times in succession, several times a day, over several days (or even longer) until the skill is mastered. There are four parts, and an optional fifth, to a discrete trial.
  • the discriminative stimulus (SD)-- the instruction or environmental cue to which the teacher would like the child to respond
  • the prompting stimulus (SP)-- a prompt or cue from the teacher to help the child respond correctly (optional)
  • the response (R)-- the skill or behavior that is the target of the instruction, or a portion thereof
  • the reinforcing stimulus (SR)-- a reward designed to motivate the child to respond and respond correctly
  • the inter-trial interval (ITI)-- a brief pause between consecutive trials

Essentially, this illustrates the order of a discrete trial. First comes the teacher's instruction (SD). If the teacher thinks the child may need some help responding correctly, she will give him a little prompt, cue, or model to help him out (SP). Then, either with help or without, the child gives some response to the instruction (R). If the child responds incorrectly she might correct him, and then give him another chance. If he responds correctly, or close to correctly, the teacher might give him some reward or praise to encourage him (SR). After that is completed, the teacher might want to pause for a bit before continuing, to let the child know that they have completed one set and have moved on to the next (ITI).

When I present workshops or provide trainings, I don't like to overload my audience.  The same applies here, so I am going to stop here and talk more about discrete trial training,  in my next blog post.  Since ABA and Discrete Trial Training are large topics to cover, I am going to break these concepts down into a series of blog posts.  I hope you found this introduction helpful and hope you will stop by next week for the second post in this series.

To help you get started with discrete trial training, I have made my DTT Colour Teaching Kit free for a limited time!  Click on the picture below to grab it for free while you can!

Until next time,



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