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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

Using ABA Concepts in the Natural Environment – Recommendations for Parents (Part 5)

Looking at how concepts of applied behavior analysis can be used in the natural environment is a beneficial strategy for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. ABA providers can help parents to learn how to implement ABA strategies in the natural environment to help the child expand skill development outside of direct ABA session time.

So far in the series “using ABA concepts in the natural environment – recommendations for parents,” we have covered the following:

  • Tips for ensuring that ABA parent training includes a focus on the 7 dimensions of applied behavior analysis (Part 1)
  • Ideas for incorporating ABA measurement concepts in parent training (Part 2)
  • Ideas for incorporating ABA experimental design in parent training (Part 3)
  • How behavior change strategies could apply to ABA parent training (Part 4)

In this article, we will cover the fundamental elements of behavior change according to the BACB task list. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board lists 21 different items in the category of fundamental elements of behavior change. These are concepts that behavior analysts should be familiar with. To expand upon knowing how to implement these concepts with children in direct ABA services, an ABA provider can recommend and train parents on how to use these concepts in the home or community environment during ABA parent training.

For more guidance on ABA parent training, go to


There is a lot to be said about each of the items in the fundamental elements of behavior change section of the task list in terms of how these items can be implemented in ABA parent training or recommended to parents to use with their child. However, we will do a quick review here.

D-01: Use positive and negative reinforcement

Positive reinforcement should be recommended and explained to parents as one of the first strategies that you recommend to parents.

Negative reinforcement involves removing, reducing, postponing, or preventing a stimulus to increase the behavior of interest (Iwata, 1987). In some ways, parents are probably already using negative reinforcement. For instance, a parent may remove a toy if the child is throwing a tantrum or maybe a parent tends to say something like, “You will not be going outside to play unless you clean up your mess!”

ABA providers can help parents navigate the use of negative reinforcement in effective ways while also looking at ways to increase the use of positive reinforcement.

D-02: Use appropriate parameters and schedules of reinforcement

ABA providers can help parents to learn to use schedules of reinforcement in the natural environment. For instance, parents can use a continuous schedule of reinforcement and comply with a child’s request every time they request something with appropriate words and tone (for a child who tends to be “bossy” toward the parent). Then, ABA Providers can help parents learn to use intermittent reinforcement to fade out the frequency of reinforcement (while also considering teaching other necessary skills such as accepting no for an answer).

D-03: Use prompts and prompt fading

Using prompts and prompt fading in the natural environment is essential in helping kids learn new skills while also focusing on increasing their independence. A parent may use least to most prompting to help a child learn skills of daily living such as brushing teeth or getting dressed.

D-04: Use modeling and imitation training

Parents should learn about the effectiveness of modeling. When parents model the behavior that they’d like their children to be displaying this helps the child learn what behavior is expected and how that behavior will lead to reinforcement by observing the consequences that occur when someone else is displaying that behavior (Neef, et. al., 2004).

D-05: Use shaping

Shaping is an “art form” (Athens, et. al., 2007). Parents can use shaping to improve a number of different skills and behaviors in their children.

D-06: Use chaining

Chaining is another strategy that parents can use to help a child learn behaviors that require multiple steps. Self-care skills is one area that parents can focus on to use chaining. (Bancroft, et. al., 2011).

D-07: Conduct task analyses

Task analyses are related to chaining and can also be a strategy that parents can implement in the natural environment.

D-08: Use discrete-trial and free-operant arrangements

For some families, discrete-trials will be helpful while for other families free-operant arrangements may be more appropriate. Consider the family you are working with and what will be most beneficial for the child.

D-09: Use the verbal operants as a basis for language assessment

Parents can help ABA providers with assessment in that they could make observations and report on the verbal operants and how their child displays these areas of development in the natural environment.

D-10: Use echoic training

Parents can learn to use echoic training for kids who need to improve in this area. ABA providers may suggest that parents set aside time to practice echoics with their child and find ways to incorporate echoics practice in day to day routines.

D-11: Use mand training

Mand training is something that parents can certainly work on with their child. Mand training helps the child improve the skill of requesting items and activities and it also allows parents many opportunities in the course of everyday activities to provide their child with learning opportunities.

D-12: Use tact training

Tact training is something that is a good idea for parents to use in the natural environment. Although ABA providers often do tact training in a discrete-trial manner, having parents practice tacts with their child in the natural environment can help the child generalize skills and make it more likely that the tacts will be used in everyday activities.

D-13: Use intraverbal training

Intraverbal training is a complex intervention. Depending on the child’s needs, parents may utilize different strategies for intraverbal training. Whether parents are helping their child respond to greetings from others or have a five exchange conversation on one topic, ABA providers can help individualize recommendations for the family they are working with.

D-14: Use listener training

Listener training is an extremely helpful intervention for parents to use with a child with autism spectrum disorder. ABA providers should help parents learn effective strategies for working on improving their child’s listener skills, such as compliance with demands, following instructions, and receptive listening.

D-15: Identify punishers

If punishment is necessary to recommend (as it may be for some children and for some behaviors), ABA providers can help guide parents in selecting socially acceptable punishers as well as finding which punishers will be effective for the child. Additionally, if a punisher is used, reinforcement such as through non-contingent reinforcement or differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors should be used (Verriden & Roscoe, 2008).

D-16: Use positive and negative punishment

As mentioned in D15, ABA providers should guide parents through the use of punishment.

D-17: Use appropriate parameters and schedules of punishment

ABA providers should help parents navigate schedules of punishment as they would with schedules of reinforcement while also helping parents reduce the use of punishment when possible.

D-18: Use extinction

Extinction can be challenging to implement in the natural environment when there are so many other factors at play, such as competing responsibilities for parents to attend to and various stimuli in the environment that may actually be reinforcing which could make extinction difficult. However, ABA providers can help parents with this by making recommendations for environmental arrangement strategies that can help with extinction and helping parents to learn about extinction bursts and what to do in response to them.

D-19: Use combinations of reinforcement with punishment and extinction

In summary, ABA providers can help parents find an optimal balance of reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.

D-20: Use response-independent (time-based) schedules of reinforcement (i.e., noncontingent reinforcement)

Using noncontingent reinforcement is a good strategy to recommend to parents. Oftentimes parents can get really busy and then end up attending to a child mostly when they are misbehaving. If a parent uses NCR, they can provide the child with reinforcement and also condition themselves as a reinforcing stimulus. Additionally, NCR can help reduce maladaptive behaviors that the child may be displaying (Wallace, et. al., 2012).

D-21: Use differential reinforcement (e.g., DRO, DRA, DRI, DRL, DRH)

Finding ways to incorporate differential reinforcement in a child’s natural environment takes some creativity but can be so helpful for that child to improve skills and reduce maladaptive behaviors.


Incorporating fundamental elements of behavior change into ABA parent training is a great way to help parents use ABA in everyday routines and activities.


Athens, E. S., Vollmer, T. R., & Pipkin, C. C. (2007). Shaping academic task engagement with percentile schedules. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 40(3), 475–488. doi:10.1901/jaba.2007.40-475

Bancroft, S. L., Weiss, J. S., Libby, M. E., & Ahearn, W. H. (2011). A comparison of procedural variations in teaching behavior chains: manual guidance, trainer completion, and no completion of untrained steps. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 44(3), 559–569. doi:10.1901/jaba.2011.44-559

Iwata B. A. (1987). Negative reinforcement in applied behavior analysis: an emerging technology. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 20(4), 361–378. doi:10.1901/jaba.1987.20-361

Neef, N. A., Marckel, J., Ferreri, S., Jung, S., Nist, L., & Armstrong, N. (2004). Effects of modeling versus instructions on sensitivity to reinforcement schedules. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 37(3), 267–281. doi:10.1901/jaba.2004.37-267

Verriden, A. L. and Roscoe, E. M. (2019), An evaluation of a punisher assessment for decreasing automatically reinforced problem behavior. Jnl of Applied Behav Analysis, 52: 205-226. doi:10.1002/jaba.509

Wallace, M. D., Iwata, B. A., Hanley, G. P., Thompson, R. H., & Roscoe, E. M. (2012). Noncontingent reinforcement: a further examination of schedule effects during treatment. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 45(4), 709–719. doi:10.1901/jaba.2012.45-709

Using ABA Concepts in the Natural Environment – Recommendations for Parents (Part 5)

APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). Using ABA Concepts in the Natural Environment – Recommendations for Parents (Part 5). Psych Central. Retrieved on June 26, 2019, from