Throwing the ABA out with the bathwater

In the past few years I have worked at three Universities and in each of them I managed to squeeze in an introductory lecture to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). In the first university I taught it on a module called ‘Clinical Psychology’, in the second university I taught it on a module called ‘Persuasion and Influence’ and in the third university I taught it on a module called ‘Atypical Development’.


Each time I teach ABA the same two things happen. Firstly, undergraduate psychology students in the final year of their degree do not really know anything about ABA. A long time ago, following the development of cognitive psychology, it seems that psychology departments throughout the world (not just those that I have worked at, which are great places by the way!) dismissed the utility of behavioural thinking in managing problematic behaviour. But in doing so, they not only denied their students access to an important piece of the puzzle in the historical lineage of psychology, but they denied them access to a useful tool. Why? Because most of our undergraduates do not go on to become psychologists, most of them go on to become parents or teachers, or to hold other occupations where a working knowledge of ABA would provide them with a powerful weapon.

The second thing that happens, without fail, is that students love it. And I’d like to try to illustrate why I think this 4c19b6157af52193ddd0f6cc3a86d8e4happens. But before I do, it is probably best that I explain the basics of ABA. ABA assumes that all problematic behaviour falls into one of two categories; behaviour that happens too much, and behaviour that doesn’t happen enough. Therefore, the job of the behaviour analyst is simply to increase or decrease the rate of behaviour. That’s it. For example, in a classroom situation, if a child is getting out of their seat too much, then the job of the behaviour analyst is to reduce the frequency of this behaviour. Or if the child doesn’t speak up enough in class, then the job of the behaviour analyst is to increase the number of times that the child contributes in class. Now in order to increase or decrease behaviour, the behaviour analyst will look to the context to try to figure out what is going on. Specifically, he/she will look at what triggers the behaviour (called the antecedent), and what functions to maintain the behaviour (called the consequence). In our previous example, perhaps the child gets out of their seat when they cannot complete a question (the antecedent), and perhaps the teacher giving them the answer functions to increase the likelihood that the child will exhibit the behaviour again (consequence).

There is a lot more to ABA than what I have just described, but that should give you the gist of it. Any person who is able to break down a situation into what comes before the behaviour and what comes after the behaviour is in a position to hypothesize what is causing/maintaining the behaviour. They can then alter the antecedents / consequences in an attempt to increase or decrease the frequency of behaviour. For example, perhaps the teacher would take the child back to their seat and encourage them to solve the problem by themselves. If the teacher does this enough times then maybe the child will be less likely to get out of their seat in the future, as their behaviour is no longer being reinforced.

5644d72a38b72a29bb233bbe66908e0cIn my opinion, the reason why students love the approach is two-fold. Firstly, it is scientific. It doesn’t require the students to bother themselves too much with things that are going on inside of the person that they themselves cannot observe. Instead they simply look with their own eyes at every situation, and play with what comes before and after in an effort to change the rate of behaviour. Secondly, and more importantly, ABA lowers an over-reliance on the diagnosis of psychological disorders. That is to say that labels, which often function to imprison a person, are just not useful from an ABA perspective. I’m not sure I am articulating this well enough, but maybe the following example will be helpful. If a child is getting out of their seat too much in class then maybe that child will be given a diagnosis of ADHD at some point in their life, and maybe that label, in addition to requiring unreliable drug treatment, will affect them for the rest of their life. From an ABA perspective, there is no need to get involved with labelling of disorders that are ‘inside’ a child, instead the behaviour analyst just observes behaviour, and tries to change its frequency by altering aspects of the environment. The problem is not within the child; it is within the environment.

ABA is an useful tool for any person, let alone a psychologist. And it is my opinion that modules teaching ABA should be readily available for our students, and should even form the basis for inset days within school settings. In the UK it is encouraging to see that some people are writing strong arguments in favour of ABA and that Universities are beginning to offer Masters courses that train people in this approach. Hopefully, that baby is finding its way back to the bath.

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