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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

How to Change Human Behavior: Basic Concepts in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)

What do you want to change? Handwriting on a napkin with cup of espresso coffee

  • Maybe you are a parent of a child with a diagnosis, such as an Autism Spectrum Disorder or a learning disability.
  • Maybe you are a professional working with this type of population.
  • Maybe you are a parent struggling with getting your child (typically developing child or child with a diagnosis) to complete a routine independently.
  • Maybe you want to help your child learn to tie her shoes.
  • Maybe you want to develop new habits that will help you keep up on housekeeping or improve another area of your life.

No matter your situation or whether you would like to change your own behavior or someone else’s, the concepts in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) can help you in many ways. Although ABA is the systematic application of principles of learning and behavior founded on, most notably, B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, the concepts of ABA can be used in day to day life. Following are some of the main concepts in ABA.

***Note: To receive or have your child receive ABA services, contact a trained professional. Although you can use ABA concepts at home, it is not the same as receiving ABA services.***

Main Concepts in ABA (A sample list)

  • Positive Reinforcement
    • Positive reinforcement is when a stimulus (pretty much any experience, item, behavior, etc.) immediately follows a person’s behavior and then increases the occurrence of that behavior in the future. The behavior happens more often when positive reinforcement is at play.
    • For example: Child whines for a cookie. Mom gives in and gives a cookie. If whining for cookies (or other desired items) happens more often in the future (which it likely will), then positive reinforcement has occurred.
  • Negative Reinforcement
    • Negative reinforcement is when a stimulus is removed immediately following a person’s behavior and that behavior increases in the future.
    • For example: In the previous example, negative reinforcement occurs for Mom if she gives in and gives the cookie to her child more often in the future as a result of having the whining “removed” when doing so. In other words, the child is no longer bothering her after she provides the cookie.
  • DRA (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors)
    • DRA is providing positive reinforcement to behaviors that you would like to see in the child/other person while also withholding the reinforcement that was maintaining the behavior that you no longer want to see.
    • For example: In the cookie example, Mom could use DRA to reduce or eliminate her child’s whining by no longer providing a cookie in response to his whining (meaning to no longer give in to his whining for a cookie). Additionally, she should provide positive reinforcement for behaviors she would like to see (alternative behaviors). She could provide a cookie to the child if he uses his manners and talks with an appropriate voice and says “May I please have a cookie?”. If she would like her child to stop asking for a treat before dinner, she could provide some other type of reinforcer (such as tokens that could earn him prizes or playing a game with him) if he goes a certain amount of time playing with his toys while only vocalizing about topics that do not include requests for food.
  • Extinction
    • Extinction is no longer providing the reinforcement that was being provided to a particular behavior. When using extinction, it is helpful to provide reinforcement for a behavior you would rather see instead. If needed, teach or shape the alternative behavior if the child (or person) does not currently perform that behavior.
    • For example: Extinction is part of DRA, so in the above example, Mom could put her child’s whining on extinction by no longer giving the child what he wants when he whines.
  • Extinction Burst
    • When using extinction, be prepared for the behavior you are targeting to temporarily increase. When reinforcement is no longer provided for a behavior that has previously resulted in something that a person has learned to expect, they are likely to perform that behavior even more when the reinforcement stops. It’s like they are trying that behavior more and more, because they are sure it should result in what they have received in the past.
    • For example: When Mom puts her child’s whining on extinction, he will most likely whine even more for awhile to see if she will give in. Mom should continue ignoring the whining and the whining will decrease (if there is not another function of the whining and if there is not another stimulus with stimulus control over the whining).
  • Chaining
    • Chaining is breaking a task into very small steps. Using chaining can help a child/person learn a more complex skill.
    • For example: Teaching a child to brush his teeth can be broken down into many, many steps from walking into the bathroom to picking up the toothbrush to brushing the front bottom teeth to spitting toothpaste out of the mouth to leaving the bathroom and everything in between.
  • Shaping
    • Shaping is reinforcing closer and closer approximations of the end target behavior goal.
    • For example: When a parent teaches a child to brush his teeth, shaping can be used to teach the child to scrub his teeth more thoroughly as he gets better at the skill.
  • Function of Behavior
    • It is very important to understand the function of a person’s behavior. If this is not understood, the intervention put in place could be ineffective or could even increase the behavior.
    • 4 functions of behavior:
      • Escape/Avoidance: a person’s behavior results in getting out of a situation they do not want to experience either by stopping it as it is happening (escaping) or making it so that it will not happen in the future (avoiding)
      • Attention: a person’s behavior results in receiving attention from others
      • Access: a person’s behavior results in being able to utilize a tangible item or participate in some activity (such as getting a cookie or using electronics)
      • Automatic Reinforcement: a person’s behavior is not maintained by anything involving another person or other items but is instead reinforcing to the individual regardless of the actions of others
  • ABC data
    • ABC data refers to Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequences. Antecedents are the things that happen before the behavior occurs that also influence the behavior. Behavior is anything that a person does. Consequences are anything that occurs immediately following the behavior. Both antecedents and consequences are important in changing behavior.

Although this post only provides a quick overview of some of the main concepts found in applied behavior analysis (ABA) and only covers each point briefly, you can still begin to see how ABA can be utilized in day to day life to influence human behavior. Feel free to implement some of these ideas at home as the concepts are founded on principles of learning and behavior that influence everyone, but be sure to contact a professional if you would like to receive ABA services.

I will discuss specific ways that ABA concepts can be used in future posts.

[image credit: © Marek via Fotalia]

How to Change Human Behavior: Basic Concepts in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2015). How to Change Human Behavior: Basic Concepts in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from