After a week of complete writer’s block and procrastination, mostly due to the influx of due dates and test dates that comes with the holidays, I figured an informative yet uplifting post about the field of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) would be perfect. When I initially applied to grad school the goal was to become a special education teacher, but that was before I was introduced to the world of applied behavior analysis. For the fourth or tenth time (whose counting?) my original career plan was thrown off course after my introduction to ABA. Although my experience in the special education field is limited, I was shocked that I had never heard about ABA before. After trying to explain to my friends and family what my change in path and ABA is only getting that deer in the headlights look back, I realized the field could use some recognition so why not write a blog about what I have learned so far. Please take note that I only have two months of information on ABA under my belt, so I am not covering the entirety of the field in this post, just the parts that have influenced me the most.
What exactly is applied behavior analysis?
The actual definition of applied behavior analysis can be difficult to grasp, so I’m going to break it down for you to the best of my abilities. ABA incorporates research, science, and environments together to develop a procedure or plan that improves an individual’s quality of life based through behavior change. Systematic observations help identify target behaviors that are significant to the individual’s life, obtain necessary data, and evaluate effectiveness of the interventions. The environment in which the behavior occurs is important to get a full understanding the behavior and what can be done to change it. Understanding the function of the behavior, why is the individual engaging in that behavior, what is the purpose of the behavior is crucial to developing a plan that will improve the individual’s quality of life. Data is continuously recorded to evaluate the effectiveness of each intervention put in place, to build an evidence base, and so that the procedures can be described with such detail that they are easily implemented by other professionals. ABA procedures also thrive when they result in generality, which happens when the behavior change is produced in environments other than the one it was taught in. In short, ABA uses science to understand behaviors on a level that is personal to the individual, so that a procedure can be developed in a way that the individual can relate to and that increases the probability of success.
How ABA can change the world:
The world we live in today seems to be more intrigued by scrolling through social media and following the next big “life changing” fad that is usually promoted by paid celebrities, than taking the same amount of time to scroll through research and evidence to find procedures that actually produce the results they’re looking for can maintain those results for a life time. I’m not going to lie I have fallen victim to a few fads that promised results, and, in the end, I ended up with a lot less money and no results. When I began researching, I began to learn. Yes, it takes about half the time to open an app on my phone and read a caption on Instagram, but the results that come from implementing evidence based strategies is well worth the extra time (and extra Starbucks I can buy when I’m not buying every single stress relieving magic potion that comes across my news feed). The problem with fads is that they don’t last, thus society is engaging in a never-ending cycle of hoping for improvements but never getting results. Change that lasts produces results, change that doesn’t last produces the need for more change. In my opinion engaging in a never-ending cycle of failed attempts at improving your health and/or well-being can take a dramatic toll on a person’s confidence, hope, motivation and ultimately, I believe it contributes to the undeniable lack of human empathy in today’s society. The quick simple fix? RESEARCH.
When ABA principles are applied in educational settings the results can go far beyond individual improvement. More times than I can count I remember my peers engaging in problematic behaviors and despite any punishment the teacher implemented, the behavior never changed. For years the same peers would receive the same type of punishments for their behaviors, but no one ever took the time to truly understand what was causing the behavior or how to change it. Removing a disruptive student from a classroom may work for some, but not every student is the same and I think our education system needs to invest in strategies that are more personal to the student and that actually improve the behavior. It is impossible for one teacher to adhere to the needs of twenty to thirty students by themselves, which also means it’s impossible for a teacher to pay attention to one student long enough to determine the function of problematic behaviors. The consequences of not effectively assessing and changing behaviors can be detrimental for both the students and teachers. The little boy who throws a tantrum every time independent work is handed to him could just need some extra time and a quiet testing environment, but this solution went unnoticed for so long that he is now a teenager who decided to drop out because the frustration and stress that accompanies him in school is too much. The teacher who works well past over time and still can not figure out why one of her best students recently began disrupting the class could cut those over time hours in half if ABA was incorporated into her curriculum in college. Facts, evidence, research, compassion, motivation, and hope are just a few words that come to mind when I think of all the incredible benefits to applied behavior analysis. The next time you pick up your phone and begin scrolling through social media, I challenge you to instead research applied behavior analysis. Not just a google search, but an actual data base, look up evidence-based interventions, look up results and educate yourself on the amazing changes that the field of applied behavior analysis can bring to your life.
Thanks & Gig’em!
Kelly Cockrum is a masters student in the Department of Educational Psychology