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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

Three Types of Learning and Their Relevance to ABA Parent Training

From a behavioral perspective, there are three types of learning. These types of learning are important to consider in the context of ABA services, specifically when working with parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. As a clinician, understanding the different types of learning will help you to see a child’s behavior more clearly and develop more effective interventions and recommendations for parents.

The three types of learning include1:

  • Respondent conditioning (or classical conditioning)
  • Operant conditioning
  • Observational learning (or modeling)

Respondent (Classical) Conditioning

Respondent conditioning is sometimes referred to as classical conditioning. It has also been known as Pavlovian conditioning. When humans behave, they sometimes act in ways that are purposefully and seem to be out of conscious choice. Other times it may seem that behavior may be impulsive or like it is an automatic reaction. Respondent conditioning (or classical conditioning) can be seen as an unconscious learning method that leads to these behaviors that seem automatic and not done on purpose.

“Classical conditioning is the process in which an automatic, conditioned response is paired with specific stimuli.”2

Classical conditioning is best known to come from the work completed by Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist from the mid-1800s. Pavlov discovered that his dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound often presented before the presentation of their food. For instance, they went from salivating when food was placed directly in front of them to salivating at the sound of a food cart approaching.

Classical (or respondent) conditioning has been used in many treatments that involve an automatic physiological response of the body, such as for phobias, addictions, and eliminating bad habits (like nail biting).2

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the type of learning that is most often the focus of intervention in ABA services. Operant conditioning includes addressing the antecedents and consequences of a behavior of interest.1 The goal is to increase adaptive behaviors and decrease maladaptive behaviors. Specifically, behaviors that are socially significant to the client are targeted so that the individual may experience a higher quality of life. It is also important to consider how the client will be able to generalize his skills to various settings in his daily life such as at school, at the store, at a restaurant, in his home, at a family member’s house, and so on.

“Operant behavior is behavior ‘controlled’ by its consequences. In practice, operant conditioning is the study of reversible behavior maintained by reinforcement schedules.”3 Basically, operant conditioning considers how we can increase skills and decrease problematic behaviors by manipulating antecedents and consequences, specifically reinforcement and punishment schedules that relate to the targeted behavior.

Observational Learning (Modeling)

Observational learning may also be referred to as modeling. Observational learning expands upon the previous views that respondent and operant conditioning were the only two learning processes that could change behavior. In the field of behavior analysis, observational learning is specifically relevant in the areas of generalized imitation, conditioned reinforcement, and rule-governed behavior.

Albert Bandura and his colleagues popularized the concept of observational learning in the 1960s and 1970s. Modeling became a focus of study. It was found that people can learn through observing others and that others can teach by modeling specific behaviors. An individual doesn’t have to learn everything through personal experience of respondent or operant conditioning. Instead, people can look at the world around them and learn simply by watching others, evaluating the consequences that happen to others when they perform certain behaviors, and then displaying those behaviors that they have seen others display. Typically, people won’t display a behavior that they have seen is punished in others, but they may display a behavior that is rewarded or that leads to a neutral response.4

Application to ABA Parent Training

We should consider the three types of learning when providing ABA parent training. When working with children with autism spectrum disorder, considering the child’s history of learning from classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning can help the clinician and the parent to better understand the child’s current skills as well as to help the child make progress in new areas.

We can help parents to learn techniques of classical conditioning to help a child overcome a fear, to go to sleep more quickly and with more independence, or to improve eating habits and much more. Operant conditioning as a form of learning may be used to help parents learn about the impact of antecedents and consequences play in their child’s behaviors. Observational learning (or modeling) can be a focus of ABA parent training in that you can help parents to learn to model appropriate skills and behaviors so that their child can learn the skills, as well.

To learn more about ABA parent training, you can go to ABA Parent You can also find free lesson plans and more guidance on quality ABA parent training with that resource.


1Kazdin, A. E. (2005). Parent Management Training. New York, New York. Oxford University Press.

2Rehman I, Rehman CI. Classical Conditioning. [Updated 2019 Jan 19]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. Available from:

3Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2002). Operant conditioning. Annual review of psychology, 54, 115–144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124

4Fryling, M. J., Johnston, C., & Hayes, L. J. (2011). Understanding observational learning: an interbehavioral approach. The Analysis of verbal behavior, 27(1), 191–203.

Three Types of Learning and Their Relevance to ABA Parent Training

APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). Three Types of Learning and Their Relevance to ABA Parent Training. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2019, from