ABA in the Classroom: Ideas for Teachers

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) uses the scientific principles of learning and motivation in order to effectively teach.  ABA in the classroom, whether in a 1:1 setting or integrated in a public school classroom setting, presents children with a variety of developmental disabilities a chance to learn at their maximum capacity while keeping inappropriate and disruptive behaviors at a minimum.  Again, ABA caters to children (and adults) with a variety of problems including those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and many more; therefore ABA therapy is tailored to fit an individuals unique needs.


ABA in the classroom can look different depending on the classroom setting and the needs of each individual but there are some practical ideas for teachers in every setting that are effective in decreasing problem behaviors while teaching skills and lessons.  These include, but are not limited to, visual aids and schedules, sensory breaks, token boards/reinforcement schedules, and social stories.


A visual schedule can be crucial for children who like routine and like to know what comes next.  It prepares them for the next activity and allows them to be a step ahead.  This can be a classroom schedule that is posted on the classroom board or an individual schedule on the students desk.  Knowing which activity comes next, especially non-preferred activities, can significantly reduce problem behaviors.


Visual Aids are also extremely helpful for children who need a little extra help.  Visual aids can help with most skills and tasks and can vary greatly in the way they look and what they help with.  For example, their is a child who has trouble remembering the steps to wash her hands after lunch.  Her teacher created a visual aid that she carries with her to lunch.  This aid is simply a small index card that has a list of each step to washing hands.  Another example of a visual aid is a small card with velcro on a student’s desk that says “raise hand.”  This kind of visual aid can act as a prompt to a child who blurts out answers or questions and remind them to raise their hand first.  Again, there are many different kinds of visual aids to help with a variety of skills and tasks so get creative!


Sensory breaks or sensory fidgets are another practical idea for teachers to help accommodate the special needs of their students.  Sensory fidgets for students at their desk can help them focus and stay on task.  These can include a strip of soft velcro on the side of the desk that they can rub or a band that stretches from one chair leg to the other for their feet.  Sensory breaks are another option for children who seem to benefit from sensory input.  A sensory break could include earning a token to have access to the classroom rocking chair or having a scheduled time to go outside and swing.  Each child has a unique set of sensory needs and while some children benefit from a more calming input, others benefit from a more alerting input.  Sensory fidgets and sensory breaks are a great way to help a child with sensory issues get back on the “right track.”


Token boards, which allow a child to earn “tokens” for a preferred item or activity, can be just the motivation they need to get through their math problems or stay quiet during lunch time.  Token boards are easy to make and are a practical way to provide a student with that extra push to stay on task and decrease problem behavior.


For a teacher who has a child that requires a little extra help learning and managing their behavior, these ideas are a great start.  They not only decrease problem behavior but they also build the foundation for effective learning!



Natural Environment Teaching


“Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a set of principles that form the basis of many behavioral treatments.  ABA is based on the science of learning and behavior.”  These concepts can be applied anywhere by anyone including the classroom, in the community, and at home by the teacher or by a caregiver!


A lot of people view ABA therapy as a one-on-one session that is extremely structured and uses therapies such as Discrete Trial Training (DTT) to teach skills while sitting at a desk.  While this is effective in teaching skills to students there is also an ABA therapy called Natural Environment Teaching (NET) that is less-structured and allows the child’s interest to lead in teaching new skills. NET uses the natural environment which maximizes generalization and can be used to teach a wide range of skills.


NET involves teaching children in every situation and experience throughout the day.  For example, it is recess and skills acquisition is not being taught… but why can’t it?  Little Suzy runs to the swing and expects to be pushed automatically and the teacher uses this situation as an incidental teaching moment.  Suzy is motivated by the swing and the teacher can use this opportunity to teach language.  Instead of pushing Suzy without thought, Suzy can ask to be pushed.  Another example of using the natural environment to teach would simply be to model during play.  Create a ramp with books so that Tommy can roll his toy cars down.  Along with teaching independent play, this same setting can also be used to teach language.  Tommy can be prompted to say “Go” before rolling his car, etc.


The advantages of Natural Environment Teaching are endless.  Motivation comes quickly because the learning opportunity is created based on the child’s interest.  Reinforcement is built in.  The situation is based on the child’s natural environment.  Language is more typical because it is occurs in it’s natural context.  The risk of non-compliance is low.  The list goes on and on for reasons to incorporate NET at home and in the classroom.



Exploring Communication

We’ve said it before- communication is key!! For the children who have difficulty communicating their wants and needs, there are ways to aid them verbally (ex. mand training) and non-verbally (ex. visual aids), as well as devices that serve to be their voice and enhance their communication skills.


Mand training is a crucial piece of the verbal training puzzle.  A mand is a verbal response that is controlled by an establishing operation.  To put it simply, manding is requesting a desired item, activity, or information.  This request can be made through vocalizations, hand gestures or sign language, picture exchange systems, or devices.  There are multiple training strategies including using a highly preferred reinforcer and having the child mand or request the item or activity before gaining access to it.  Another strategy uses prompts and prompt fading to help children learn to request items.


Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is another key piece, especially for children who do no vocalize and benefit from the use of visual aids.  This involves learning to exchange a picture of a desired item or activity in exchange for the actual item.  PECS start with single pictures and build into making sentences with these pictures.


There are many devices that also serve to help with communication.  There are GoTalk’s which allow you to add pictures and record a word relating to the picture.  These devices are limited to how many pictures/words can be accessed but are great for simple communication, such as “hello”, “all done”, and “drink”.  Proloquo2Go is another good example of a symbol based device.  This particular app is through Apple and is limitless in its customization and number of pictures and words that can be accessed.


This is only the tip of the iceberg in helping a child establish and build upon their communication skills.  There are so many ways to teach language in everyday settings and to use the aids, mentioned above, to assist a child in being able to express their wants and needs.  Giving a child a voice can do wonders for their world!


Communication is Key!

Communication is an essential part of every day life.  It is the base of most all of our relationships and it forms every interaction we have.  For most people, communication comes easy.  We use words, body language, and facial expressions every single day and most times without thought.  For children with autism, communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is often an extremely hard concept.  This barrier can effect the child socially, academically, and emotionally.

People who have this difficulty with language can struggle verbally and non-verbally, unable to express their wants and needs as well as unable to make eye contact or understand hand gestures.  This can be very frustrating.  Imagine wanting a drink but unable to ask for it.  While this is the case, you will also notice repetitive patterns of language and narrow interests for those who exhibit verbal language.

An example of repetitive language is if you were to say, “How are you?” and instead of answering, the child responds with the same question.  Another example is when a favorite quote from a TV show or movie is repeated over and over again and is used completely out of context.  For some, there are definitely some language skills present but they are not at the normal level of ability.

Narrow interests are present in some children with autism and are seen when a child can talk continuously about something that holds their interests but are unable to carry on a simple two-way conversation.

There are many ways to practice and teach language as well as many devices and visual aids that can help a child express their needs.  Later on the blog we will discuss different academic tips as well as devices and programs that enhance language for those who have trouble communicating.


Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement occurs when a response is strengthened or increased.  We are going to discuss both positive and negative reinforcement and give examples of each type below.

Positive reinforcement, which seems to be the most effective, is when something is added in order to increase a response.  The word positive refers to adding something and the word reinforcement refers to the increased response.  Positive reinforcement is used every day without even thinking about it.  When you tell your child “good job” after putting away their toys or when you tell your best friend her hair looks nice after she has been to the salon.  Both of these comments will increase the probability of them cleaning up their toys and getting their hair done.  Positive reinforcement is also used through sticker charts and token boards.  Sally may earn a token after answering math questions correctly.  This is something added in order to increase a response or positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is occasionally misunderstood.  Negative reinforcement is NOT a decrease in response but instead the word negative refers to something being taken away in order to still increase or strengthen the behavior.  Let’s take an alarm clock for example. Jimmy sets his annoying alarm for 5:30 am.  When his alarm starts buzzing in the morning, Jimmy gets out of bed and turns his alarm off.  Removing  the sound of the alarm clock will increase Jimmy’s behavior of getting out of bed and turning off his alarm in the morning.  Another example could be seen in a wife who is constantly nagged by her husband to do the dishes day after day.  One evening, Johnny does not say a word about the dirty dishes and Clara loads the dishwasher.  Nagging was eliminated or taken away and Clara now does the dishes every evening.

There is no limit to how reinforcement can be delivered.  Often times teachers and parents use sticker charts or token boards but something as simple as praise can be effective as well.  Money, candy, and high fives are also among the many forms of positive reinforcement.  Always remember: if you want an increase in response, the most powerful way to get it is through reinforcement!