Need help with ABA terminology? Here’s Your Guide

Applied behavior analysis has a language all its own, but we’re here to help! A local expert breaks down ABA terminology you’re likely to hear during your child’s therapy.

When your child starts working with an ABA therapy provider, you quickly learn that the world of ABA has its own language — and ABA terminology can be confusing at times. You’ve come so far already, so don’t let the terms bog you down, says Reena Naami-Dier, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Owner of Spark Center for Autism, an early intervention ABA center in Farmington.

“Going through the process of finding a provider is already daunting, so having a general idea of terminology that you are likely to come across can afford even a small amount of relief from the overwhelming process,” she says. And thank goodness!

“Here are some key phrases/terms that may be unfamiliar — but so important to your child’s programming — many of which you will see in your child’s assessment and treatment plan, or come across during caregiver training,” she says. Keep this list handy and be sure to ask your child’s ABA provider to explain any term you don’t know or understand.

ABA terminology to get to know

Generalization

When an individual’s abilities or skills expand beyond the scope of which it has been taught. For example, a child generalizes skills when they can respond correctly to a variety of settings, people or materials — even outside where the skill was learned. (Pro tip: A good ABA provider should include generalization within your child’s treatment.)

Prompt

A supplemental stimulus that increases the probability of a correct response. This could include a gesture, instruction or demonstration. The types of prompts used during your child’s programming can depend on the type of skill being taught, your child’s learning patterns and even your child’s preferences!

Reinforcement

This is one of the most important concepts in ABA! Reinforcement is the basis for how we all learn and the term refers to the presentation of something preferred (positive reinforcement), or the removal of something aversive (negative reinforcement), that results in an increased frequency of a response.

Shaping

A technique that gradually teaches new behavior by reinforcing successive approximations until the target behavior is achieved. Shaping is a good way to break down skills to teach them as one small step at a time.

Function

Quite simply, function is “why” a behavior occurs.

Natural environment training

A loosely structured teaching technique using a learner’s motivation and activities that are not exclusively teacher-selected. It allows the child to take the lead and is also a great way to help work on generalization.

Joint attention

A form of early social and communicative behavior that involves sharing a common focus on something with someone else. This is a major part of early learning behaviors.

Fading

This is a strategy, often paired with prompts, to decrease the level of assistance needed to complete a task or activity and promote independence.

Discrete trial training

A highly structured teaching technique that often involves a teacher working one-on-one with an individual. Larger, more complex skills are broken down into smaller steps. Learning trials begin with a short, clear instruction, a prompt to assist the learner in responding correctly (if needed), a response and either reinforcement (if correct) or a correction procedure, such as guiding the learner to the correct response.

Preference assessment

A procedure that helps determine a hierarchy of a child’s preferred items or activities, often indicating highly preferred versus moderately and low preferred (or non-preferred) items or activities. The information from a preference assessment can be used to identify potential reinforcers — but it can only be determined if the item is a “reinforcer” if the behavior increases after presenting the item.

Task analysis

A teaching process that breaks down complex activities into a series of smaller, more manageable steps that are more easily learned. You may often see task analyses used for things like daily living skills such as dressing, toothbrushing and others.

Maintenance

The continued performance of a previously acquired skill, after teaching has ceased. This often goes hand in hand with generalization.

Discrimination

The ability to distinguish between two or more stimuli.

Motivating operations

Environmental variables that change the effectiveness of a reinforcer, and change the current frequency of behavior. These variables can be related to how much you have or have not had access to a stimulus. For example, if your child loves orange juice, but already had two cups of orange juice that morning, they may be less likely to want more orange juice, so using it as a reinforcer may not be effective. Alternatively, if your child loves playing on a tablet, but the tablet had to charge all day so it was not available, the tablet may be a more effective reinforcer.

Functional behavior assessment

A process for gathering information about behaviors of concern, whether the behaviors are academic, social or emotional. This can include interviews, direct observation and data collection, and surveys.

Token economy

A system for providing positive reinforcement by providing tokens or points for completing tasks or engaging in desired behaviors. The tokens can then be exchanged for an item or activity of preference.

Data collection

Gathering clinical data that informs the direction of your child’s therapy, outcomes and success measures. This might include gathering data on how often a behavior does or does not occur, and data for how long behaviors may occur, which may be used to determine if your child is progressing within their programming. It may also include antecedent-behavior-consequence (ABC) data, which helps determine the function of a behavior.

Verbal behavior

The concept that language is a learned behavior that can be acquired. The verbal behavior approach focuses on the function (or the “why”) of language and communication, and not just the form. It breaks language down into different “operants” to teach language skills. These operants typically include the following:

  • Mand: a request. For example, asking for a cookie.
  • Tact: a label. For example, seeing a picture of a cookie, and calling it a cookie.
  • Echoic: vocal imitation. For example, hearing someone else say cookie, and repeating it.
  • Intraverbal: a form of verbal behavior where the speaker responds to another’s verbal behavior. Considered the building blocks of conversations, this can include answering questions. For example, being asked “What is your favorite dessert?” and answering “Cookie.”

Expertise brought to you by Spark Center for Autism. Discover sparkcenterforautism.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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