Applied Behavioral Analysis at BPS

What is Applied Behavior Analysis and how does it’s incorporation into classrooms impact students? Take a deeper look into the principles of ABA and the story of two pilot programs implemented in Boston Public Schools.

The Principles of ABA Work for All Students

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is based on the research of B. F. Skinner and employs the principles of learning through operant and respondent conditioning. The fundamental principles of behavior have been the focus of research in this area over the course of the past 60 years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the work of Ivar Lovaas focused primarily on the use of ABA interventions with students with autism. ABA used as an intervention to improve outcomes for students with autism is a widely accepted practice. Many educators, however, are unaware that ABA can be an effective intervention for many students. Contrary to popular belief, the field of ABA did not get its start with a focus on autism. In fact, only 1 of the first 11 articles published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis was about interventions for children with autism.
Also, ABA does not consist exclusively of routinized drilling of basic facts.

The principles of ABA can be used to support a variety of students, from those with learning disabilities and communication disorders to those with behavioral challenges or intellectual disabilities. ABA has even been used to maximize the performance of professional athletes and to treat the symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome and anxiety.

The Truth about ABA

Here are a few of the myths that tend to inhibit a wider incorporation of ABA into classrooms:

  • ABA removes intrinsic motivation - This is one of the more common myths; however, research has shown continuously that this is untrue. ABA calls for contrived systems of reinforcement to be put in place only when absolutely necessary and such reinforcements should be transferred as soon as possible to the natural environment in order to support long-term and sustainable behavioral changes.
  • ABA is only for “lower functioning” or younger kids - ABA is for everyone! The principles of ABA are meant to identify the variables in the environment that impact a student’s behavior (positively or negatively) and then utilize those factors to encourage the student to be his or her best self by supporting socially significant behaviors.
  • ABA works against psychology and occupational therapy - Using ABA principals does not mean that educators do not care about students’ feelings or that they ignore mental health challenges. Behavior analysts using ABA fully acknowledge and accept that students might have sensory motivations for their behaviors. ABA is merely one lens through which we can systematically look at student needs and make individualized changes to programmatic interventions while measuring their outcomes.

Most simply, ABA is the analysis of the relationship between behavior and the environment (response and stimuli), relying heavily on data-driven decisions to support student success.

A fundamental belief in ABA is that our approach to instruction centers around the individual. We have a saying, “The learner is always right.” This means that when students are not learning, we need to change the way that we teach, making small (or sometimes, large) data-informed adjustments, systematically identifying factors interfering with the learning process, until we see adequate progress. This lens is critical to the success of ABA. However, it is this lens that also causes confusion and controversy. Many believe that ABA interventions are too specific and targeted, adding unnecessary delays during the teaching process. This is untrue. If there are unnecessary delays, then appropriate, individual data-driven decisions are not being made.

Educators actually use ABA principles, often without knowing that they are doing so. Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)-- frameworks embraced by many schools--are firmly rooted in the fundamentals of ABA. They employ, for example, basic principles of reinforcement and extinction, rely on data collection for decision making, and emphasize individualization of strategies based on student performance.

One teacher with whom we worked described a student leaving the classroom but wanting to use the iPad. She explained that the student must return to the classroom before being allowed to use the iPad. In this example, the teacher is employing a strategy known as differential reinforcement. In working with this teacher, we explained that, although simplistic, there is a science behind this logic. The student must be exhibiting appropriate behavior in order to access a preferred item. This is common sense, right? It is also one of the fundamental principles of ABA. Specifically, the idea that behaviors that get reinforced will happen more often in the future is central to this example. With ABA training, we believe that the principles of ABA could be an effective tool for many of our students.

We have increased our implementation of ABA principles embedded as a methodology, a tool for educators, not a program. In Boston Public Schools last year, we educated just over 10,000 students with disabilities and we utilized ABA principles for just over 800, or approximately 7% of these students, which was an increase of 24% from the previous year. We trained people in 90 schools to embed ABA principles, up from 69 schools the year before. We provided over 640 hours of districtwide professional development. We supported school leaders at all levels, as incorporating behavioral principles into teaching and learning requires commitment from administration, teachers, and paraprofessionals.

Due to the misconceptions people have about ABA, a large portion of our training has been to challenge assumptions. We have worked to diffuse myths and misconceptions by delivering a training to teachers four times a year called, “What is ABA?” This training has provided a forum where we can address questions and concerns about ABA.

At first, we rushed right into the work and developed professional learning with very high-level content. Then we realized that we needed to readjust our assumptions about prior knowledge, recognizing that our staff needed more skills than we knew. Initially, we failed to connect content to practice and to deliver the information in a way that was functional and useful for staff.

Pilot Programs/Professional Development

We implemented two pilot programs in Boston Public schools. Each school was assigned a Board Certified Bahavior Analysts BCBA), and the educators delved into the content. They were able to implement the strategies that we shared and got a lot out of the professional development we provided. During the pilots, we:

  • Provided staff with a how-to guide, reminding them that behavioral approaches were already incorporated into effective classrooms
  • Invited an expert to observe students when recommended strategies were not working
  • Reminded practitioners that the principles of ABA could help to identify the reason a specific intervention was not working, as well as identify those that were working
  • Explained that patience is critical, and educators often need to observe and allow situations to unfold (while keeping students safe, of course), in order to provide the information needed to intervene effectively
  • Published a document called the Optimal Characteristics for Highly Specialized Strands (now called Key Performance Indicators), completed site visits, conducted peer learning walks, and reviewed data summaries
  • Found that pre- and post-work were important and incorporating them into our trainings seemed to get us the most bang for our buck

Pre-work gave educators a baseline for their students and provided the trainers with information about the educators’ skill levels. In assessing staff skills, we ask them to complete some aspects of the task that we were endeavoring to train. For example, in training on functional assessment, we ask the attendees to begin with an operational definition, data, and some completed interview forms. This allowed us (and the participants) to assess the level of independence that the trainees possessed prior to attending a training session.

The post-work helped educators to measure their effectiveness and helped us to measure the effectiveness of our trainings and tweak our content moving forward. For example, at the end of the functional assessment training noted above, we had our participants submit a full draft functional assessment. We had to ensure that we were evaluating our content for maximum effectiveness because we don’t often get a lot of face time with individual staff. We understood that it was critical that we continue to develop more training and resources for the staff who had attended our initial trainings, and we were very aware that the packaging and marketing of our material was critical.

The most important thing we have learned, however, is that people had to want to incorporate these practices into their teaching. They had to see the value of their implementation in order to observe results.

Advice on Implementing ABA

For readers who may think that this is a direction in which your school or district should move, here is some advice:

  • Professional learning must be integral to communication so staff have unified expectations and know what is expected of them individually. Professional learning has also been critical in helping educators understand that ABA, while a science, is not rocket science! The principles of ABA need to be made accessible, and we need to help educators see the alignment between the principles of ABA and everyday classroom management.
  • Identify your early adopters and foster their skills, raise them up, and celebrate examples of their successes. These people will become your cheerleaders and get the word out about the benefits of incorporating the ABA principles into daily instructional practices. Without these people, the messaging around this work can quickly turn negative and influence staff to actively resist changes in their practice.
  • Ensure that supports are in place for teachers when this work becomes hard. There will be times that supporting students using behavioral principles is a lot of work and might require an extra person for support. If resources are not available to support those times, it communicates to staff that ABA is not important enough to be supported.
  • Just as differential reinforcement is critical for improving student behavior, it is also critical for improving or changing teacher behavior. Plan to incorporate reinforcement for teachers who put in the extra effort to change their practice and do this work for students. This will help teachers to get over the hump and to feel like their