Module 1: Introduction to Basic ABA Concepts

Audio version

The Application of Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is concerned with the improvement of behavior and refers to the use of principles derived from the science of behavior to improve socially significant behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 20). The term applied refers to this socially significant change. Social significance means that the improvement is important to the client, their family and society (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 16). RBT’s are required to implement procedures that result in a socially significant change for their clients. The term behavior refers to an observable, measurable action by a living organism (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 16). Later in this module, we will review behavior in greater detail. The term analysis refers to the demonstration of the relationship between the changes made to the environment and the target behavior (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 17). It is also important to note that although ABA is highly effective at treating behaviors related to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ABA is not exclusively used as a treatment for individuals diagnosed with ASD. Rather, it can be used to treat any socially significant problem behavior or increase any socially significant skill. Some examples of other populations that behavior analysts work with include those with gambling addictions (e.g., Dixon, Whiting, Gunnarsson, Daar, & Rowsey, 2015), juvenile delinquents (e.g., Jones, Young, & Friman, 2000), sex offenders (e.g., Reyes et al., 2006), traumatic brain injury (e.g., Pace, Ivancic, & Jefferson,1994), as well as rescued dogs at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) (Bright, & Hadden, 2017) and even typically developing college students (e.g., teaching interview skills; Stocco, Thompson, Hart, & Soriano, 2017). In fact, given that ABA is based on the science of behavior, the principles you are about to learn explain all learned behavior by both human and non-human animals. In addition, the use of ABA also expands into the fields of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) (e.g., workplace performance management), Behavioral Safety (e.g., pedestrian safety) and Behavioral Economics (e.g., economic decision-making) among others.

Operant Behavior

There are two types of behavior: respondent and operant. For the purposes of this training curriculum, we will focus on operant behavior only. The primary variable that affects operant behavior is the environment. Specifically, operant behavior is any behavior that is affected primarily by its history of consequences (Skinner, 1981) and occurs under certain environmental conditions due to this previous learning history (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 31). This learning history is made up of environmental conditions that occur before (antecedent) and after (consequences) the behavior across time (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 28). Therefore, changing behavior in a measurable way entails the manipulation of environmental changes before and after a particular behavior. The relationship between what happens before or after a behavior is referred to as the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) contingency, or the three-term contingency. The term contingent refers to the dependent relationship of a consequence on the occurrence of operant behavior and is also used in reference to the temporal contiguity of behavior and environmental variables (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 42; Skinner, 1953). As previously noted, behavior is selected by the consequences that immediately follow, however, it also selects the antecedent conditions that in the future will evoke the behavior (Cooper, Heron & Heward, p. 41). The modules that follow will unfold these temporal relations to illustrate how behavior change occurs.

The ABC’s

The first part of this contingency is the antecedent. An antecedent is an environmental stimulus change that occurs before the behavior of interest (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 28). A loud noise, a change in routine, denied access to an item or activity, and the presentation of a task are all examples of stimulus changes that may occur before a target behavior. Behavior is everything observable and measurable that we do as living organisms (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 26). By reading this content you are engaging in a behavior. Other examples of behavior include crying, walking, picking up a book, singing, typing, and answering a question. Note that these examples are all observable and measurable. On the other hand, terms like “anxiety” and “frustration” are not considered behavior as these concepts must be broken down into observable and measurable behaviors. For example, instead of saying “frustration”, one may instead indicate observable and measurable behaviors such as “vocal protests” and “furrowed eyebrows”. Further information on how to define behavior will be reviewed in Module 5. The target behavior is the action of interest that the person engages in. When a behavior occurs in excess or presents a social and/or health and safety issue, it is targeted for decrease. Such behaviors can be referred to as challenging behavior or undesirable behavior. These terms will be used synonymously throughout these modules. Some examples of these include aggression, self-injurious behavior (SIB), overeating, and disrobing in public. Some other examples may include calling out in class, sedentary behavior (e.g., watching too much television), repetitive behavior, or nail biting. We will discuss challenging behaviors more in depth throughout upcoming modules (Module 2: Behavior Change, Module 4: Behavior Reduction and Module 6: Assessment Basics). Behaviors are targeted for increase when they occur less frequently than necessary or not at all, and can be referred to as skills or desirable behavior. These terms will be used synonymously throughout these modules. Skills targeted for increase may be an addition to the individual’s behavioral repertoire while others may be a replacement for existing challenging behavior. Examples of skills that may be added to a client’s repertoire include brushing teeth, holding a conversation, identifying colors, playing catch, or responding to greetings. Examples of desirable replacement behaviors include requesting a preferred item rather than engaging in aggression, or raising one’s hand and waiting to be called on rather than calling out. We will discuss the development of skills more in depth in Module 2: Behavior Change and Module 3: Skill Acquisition. The last part of this contingency is a consequence. A consequence is an environmental condition or stimulus change that occurs after the behavior of interest. Consequences alter the likelihood of a behavior occurring again in the future (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 28). For instance, a consequence may increase (reinforce) or decrease (punish) the behavior that it follows. Reinforcement and punishment will be detailed further in Module 2. Throughout this curriculum, you will learn the importance of contingencies in understanding ABA. Identification, measurement and modification of the ABC’s are necessary to promote behavior change. It is important that you think of the ABC model as the foundation for interpreting concepts throughout future modules.

Introduction to Behavior Analysis video

Using ABA in your Everyday Life Video

Pet training video

Check Your Understanding

Complete the quiz for Module 1


Bright, T. M., & Hadden, L. (2017). Safewalk: Improving enrichment and adoption rates for shelter dogs by changing human behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science20(1), 95-105. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall. Dixon, M. R., Whiting, S. W., Gunnarsson, K. F., Daar, J. H., & Rowsey, K. E. (2015). Trends in Behavior-Analytic Gambling Research and Treatment. The Behavior Analyst38(2), 179–202. Pace, G. M., Ivancic, M. T., & Jefferson, G. (1994). Stimulus fading as treatment for obscenity in a brain‐injured adult. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis27(2), 301-305. Jones, K. M., Young, M. M., & Friman, P. C. (2000). Increasing peer praise of socially rejected delinquent youth: Effects on cooperation and acceptance. School Psychology Quarterly15(1), 30. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior (No. 92904). Simon and Schuster. Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by consequences. Science213(4507), 501-504. Stocco, C. S., Thompson, R. H., Hart, J. M., & Soriano, H. L. (2017). Improving the interview skills of college students using behavioral skills training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 50(3), 495–510. Reyes, J. R., Vollmer, T. R., Sloman, K. N., Hall, A., Reed, R., Jansen, G., & Stoutimore, M. (2006). Assessment of deviant arousal in adult male sex offenders with developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis39(2), 173-188.