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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

Theoretical Foundation of Parent Training

ABA is based upon principles of learning theory. And, as discussed in the previous post about ‘What is ABA Parent Training?’, ABA parent training is also based upon learning theory.

Basics of Learning Theory

Learning theory includes theoretical foundations of three main areas of science including:

  1. Behaviorism
  2. Social Learning Theory
  3. Social Cognitive Learning Theory

All learning theories emphasize the importance of the environment in the learning and development process.

Social learning theory, developed by Bandura in 1971, in combination with the concept of operant conditioning, developed by B.F. Skinner in 1963, provide insight into the development and maintenance of behavioral concerns such as feeding issues, sleeping difficulties, disruptive or non-compliant behaviors, and elopement from caregivers (Johnson, Butter, & Scahill, 2019).

Basics of social learning theory

Many empirically supported parent training programs are based on social learning theory (Kohl, Schurer, & Bellamy, 2009). Social learning involves the development of skills and behaviors in the context of relationships or interactions with other people (Kazdin, 2005).

Social learning theory addresses how behaviors are learned. According to this approach, learning occurs through direct experience, observation of others, and modeling.

Children may learn new behaviors by observing what someone else does and then imitating the other person’s behavior. They may imitate their siblings, peers, or their parents.

Social learning theory does not blame the child or the parent for the behavioral issue. Instead, the focus is on the interactions within the relationship which offers a more objective opportunity to determine effective intervention strategies to help improve the child’s behaviors (Johnson, Butter, & Scahill, 2019).

Basics of social cognitive learning theory

Social cognitive learning theory is similar to social learning theory in that it addresses observational learning. However, SCLT (social cognitive learning theory) also considers cognitive abilities such as understanding and predicting.

Other aspects of SCLT include the idea that behavior is influenced by:

  • one’s expectations of the future consequences of their behavior,
  • by vicarious experiences of another person’s behavior and related outcomes,
  • by how we process new information based on our expectations,
  • and by the absence of expected outcomes resulting in changes to our behaviors.

SCLT involves multi-directional interactions between environmental factors, behaviors, and personal factors (such as cognition, affect, and biological experiences) (Nabavi, 2011-2012).

Basics of behaviorism

Basics of classical conditioning

Classical conditioning was one of the first concepts used in what became identified as behaviorism. This was present in Pavlov’s study with dogs.

The finding was that environment controls behavior specifically through a stimulus response relationship. Unconditioned stimuli can become conditioned stimuli (Krapfl, 2016).

Basics of operant conditioning

Children may initially display behaviors through observing and imitating others. However, to continue displaying a behavior, another process needs to become present. This process is referred to as operant conditioning.

A behavior continues to be displayed or is no longer displayed based upon the person’s learning experiences, particularly based upon what happens before and after the behavior.

Operant conditioning has to do with both the antecedents and consequences of a behavior.

Antecedents are sometimes seen as triggers for the behavior. When a child views the trigger, or discriminative stimulus, they may display the behavior, due to the association between the antecedent and the possibility of obtaining reinforcement or minimizing punishment.

Consequences are the primary factor that influences whether a behavior is maintained (Johnson, Butter, & Scahill, 2019).


As a review, parent training is based on learning theory. Learning theory includes behaviorism, social learning theory, and social cognitive learning theory. Common concepts that relate to learning theory and parent training include things like behavior, environment, antecedents, consequences, personal factors (like cognition, biological experiences, or affect), and social interactions.



Johnson, C. R., Butter, E. M., & Scahill, L. 2019. Parent Training for Autism Spectrum Disorder: Improving the Quality of Life for Children and Their Families. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.

Kazdin, A. E. 2005. Parent Management Training: Treatment for Oppositional, Aggressive, and Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, New York.

Kohl, P. L., Schurer, J., & Bellamy, J. L. (2009). The State of Parent Training: Program Offerings and Empirical Support. Families in society : the journal of contemporary human services, 90(3), 248–254. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.3894

Krapfl J. E. (2016). Behaviorism and Society. The Behavior analyst, 39(1), 123–129. doi:10.1007/s40614-016-0063-8

Tadayon Nabavi, Razieh. (2012). Bandura’s Social Learning Theory & Social Cognitive Learning Theory.

Theoretical Foundation of Parent Training

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. (2019). Theoretical Foundation of Parent Training. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from