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Living in an ABA world, and I am an ABA Girl!



Having studied ABA in *ahem* great detail, I have been on both ends of the question asking and question answering pendulum. I appreciate the great deal of jargon that we ABA-ers spout off, sometimes forgetting how downright confusing it can all seem to a good portion of the population. Admittedly, even amidst my team of professionals we have had countless discussions trying to discern ‘what the heck does that mean?!”

So, it’s no surprise that when we try and communicate our science-y jargon-y approaches to the general public, we often get a similar response...”what the heck does that mean?!” It’s also no wonder that even after we explain a concept figuring out how to apply said concept can be a head scratcher. Say what?!

When we try and support our kids in the school system, we often forget that though ABA therapists and teachers both speak the language of ‘education’ we speak entirely different dialects.

In ABA, the consequence (read as: punishment or reinforcement) has to fit the crime (read as ‘ the nature of the behaviour you’re responding to’). We apply a consequence (punishment or reinforcement) based on function of behaviour and how we want to change the behaviour; do we want a behaviour to increase or decrease?

Behaviours we want to increase:

-Raising your hand to speak -Being kind -Sharing -Doing homework

Behaviours we want to decrease: -Talking out of turn -Throwing paper airplanes at the teacher -Passing notes -Forgetting your homework

In order to determine HOW to increase or decrease behaviour we have to consider the variables.

Let’s take the classic example of inappropriate behaviour in class, say—talking back to the teacher. Billy (that’s my husband, I’m sure he won’t mind :P) has a habit of talking back to the teacher whenever it’s time to get busy doing work. The teacher, with good intentions, gives Billy a warning “if you don’t stop you’re going to go to the principal’s office”. When he doesn’t stop, he gets sent out of class.

Billy’s teacher meant to decrease his behaviour with the threat but she forgot to account for the variables. In this case, the variables that matter are WHY Billy is talking back (in ABA jargon we call it the function of the behaviour).

After some investigation, we figure out that Billy is talking back because he is trying to avoid doing his work; he knows by negotiating he buys himself time and thereby meets his goal (task avoidance).

In an attempt to PUNISH (i.e. decrease) the behaviour, she ends up reinforcing (i.e. increasing) the behaviour. Why? Because by failing to recognize the variables, she inadvertently fuels the fire. She teaches Billy that talking back to get out of work yields getting sent to the principal’s office. And as such, goal achieved---work avoided. That’s 1 point for Billy, and 0 points for his teacher.

The cycle continues daily, and Billy continuously avoids his work by talking back and learns that talking back is an effective way to get what he wants (not working). Billy’s teacher can’t understand why his behaviour is spiralling even though he is being “punished” and she definitely doesn’t see how she is fueling the fire. The whole time Billy is to blame, and never once is any consideration given to how the teacher may be creating this cycle by sending mixed messages (reinforcing the bad behaviour). After all, she's punishing him so how can she be reinforcing his behaviour--that's where ABA get's tricky because as backwards as it sounds, it's exactly what happened!

Now let’s say Billy had a savvy teacher who saw his talking back as an avoidance tactic; this teacher might engage in one single response “Billy, I appreciate your concern but it’s not up for debate” and then proceed to ignore future attempts to negotiate work expectations. By answering only once his teacher addresses his concern without allowing negotiation to serve as an escape from work tasks. She may not be able to physically make Billy do the work, but she can at least rule out the fact that she is fueling the fire, or teaching a maladaptive contingency (talking back gets me a break from work).

She might even be super savvy and say “once you’ve done your work, I’m happy to discuss work expectations with you” at which point she further motivates him to complete his task in order to voice his thoughts.

So, what’s the morale of the story?

Even though I am an ABA girl living in an ABA world (and you might be too), the rest of the world isn’t. As parents, you may feel like you walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to ABA, but remember that even though therapists and educators speak the same language, we are using different dialects. We may need to take the time to break down our core vocabulary so that the speakers of the other ‘dialect’ can benefit from what we’ve got to say.


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