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Behavior Corner: Using Principles of ABA in the Classroom

Kristen Jensen, MS, BCBA


At the onset of my career, I taught at a non-public school, specializing in educating individuals on the autism spectrum. As a teacher with a Masters of Science in Special Education, I was using ABA, without even knowing it. As I went back to school to pursue my BCBA, I discovered I was using many of these techniques, without knowing the scientific term.

In this article, I will provide the ABC’s of ABA; that I felt were helpful to use in the classroom and group settings. These techniques are beneficial to teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapist, physical therapists and parents.

ANTECEDENT CONTROL: Looking at what is occurring prior to the onset of the behavior. Once the antecedent has been successfully identified, make the appropriate changes to reduce a maladaptive behavior or increase a new skill or expected behavior.

BURST (Extinction, that is…) Immediate increase in frequency, intensity and variability of the behavior.

{example}- a child may yell for a longer period of time and screams and kicks their legs as well to attempt to gain the reinforcement of leaving the classroom.

COLLECTING DATA:   Collecting data is not always a realistic task for a facilitator with more than one student or client. When we think of ABA, we typically think of graphs/1:1 interventions/in-home services, etc. but it does not have to be…

To gather data on a behavior chose the easiest or most realistic for your setting from the following that meets the required information you are looking to obtain:

  • Partial interval-Behavior occurs at any point of the interval. In a school setting, the intervals may be 5 minutes, to the length of a class. This style provides an overestimate of the behavior and is best used for behaviors targeted for decrease.
  • Whole interval-Behavior lasts the entire length of interval. This style provides an underestimate of the behavior and is best used for behaviors targeted for increase.
  • Momentary time sampling-Behavior occurs at the END of the interval- a risky measure! “Even a broken clock is right twice a day”
  • PLACHECK– (Planned Activity Check)-This style is used for groups; the observer counts the number of people engaged in the activity at the end of the interval. This style is ideal for the classroom setting, to see the attention of the students.
  • Permanent Product-Measuring a behavior using the final outcome. For example-The behavior was making the bed. You can see by the bed whether the behavior occurred or not. You do not have to be present during the actual behavior to see the result.
  • Frequency/Count: Simply tallying the occurrences, noting the observation period or time. Behavior should be discrete, with a clear beginning and end. Behavior should not occur at high rates and should not be responses that can occur for extended periods.
  • Percent of Occurrence: Number of times the target behavior occurred/ the number of trials or opportunities. 

DISCRIMINITIVE STIMULUS (SD) –The SD signals the availability of a reinforcer. The reinforcer can be a token, in which the students save or something immediate such as a sticker.

{example}- You have turned in your homework on time in the past and know that doing so in Math class, by placing the homework sheet in the HW box by 8:00am, results in a sticker.

ESTABLISHING OPERATIONS “EO” An “EO” increases the value of a reinforcer. EO’s are UNCOMFORTABLE, even though we want them to be high. At the elementary school I went to the 1st graders complete a school play. The class was told after a good performance of the play, they were able to ride tricycles, something typically only allowed for the kindergarteners. The 1st graders had a strong EO to do well during the play, so they could ride, as the did the previous year

{example}-Being hungry makes an M&M more reinforcing. (Hunger, cold, fatigue, etc. are also examples, but obviously not used in the school setting).

Following rules is RULE GOVERNED BEHAVIOR: Controlled by a rule or something known without experiencing it. We do not “cheat” on a math test, because it is a “rule”.


We want to enable our clients or students to be the best they can be and often a little peer support and encouragement is an excellent tool the school setting is able to provide. This is also easier and more realistic for the teacher to be able to monitor and take data. Here are a few group contingencies a teacher may find useful.

  • Independent: {example} each student that completes their homework for four consecutive days, will receive 10 minutes of free time on Friday. Every student is able to earn the reward.
  • Interdependent: {example} The entire class (or a group of students) must all turn in their homework four days in a row to earn Friday’s free time.
  • Dependent: {example} the entire class (or large group) will earn Friday’s free time, if the selected student turns their homework in for four consecutive days.


A replacement behavior should require less effort; yet meet the same reinforcement as the original behavior.

INCIDENTIAL TEACHING:  This teaching style involves arranging the environment in a way, so that “natural” opportunities for learning arise. If you are interested in teaching an individual to mand {think, demand} for items, set up a scenario, such as coloring, having the paper close to the student, but the crayons out of reach. The student must mand for the crayons in this situation.

Just follow the task list….  this is a guideline from the 4th edition task list, we use in ABA: “Provide behavior analysis services in collaboration with others who support and/or provide services to one’s clients.

Often, in-home, schools, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, physical therapists, etc. find it beneficial to collaborate, discuss programs and give and receive feedback with regards to strategies used, behaviors, etc. This is important to be consistent across all fields and provide the student multiple opportunities to learn and practice the skill.

Keller Plan, formally known as PERSONALIZED SYSTEM OF INSTRUCTION:  Fred Keller designed PSI in the 1960s as a program encouraging the learner to independently learn at his or her own pace. A lecture may be a reinforcer in this program and are not used often.

Lindsley, Ogden created something called PRECISION TEACHING:

Ogden Lindsley designed Precision Teaching, which utilized the Standard Celeration Chart (Semi-logarithmic), which makes it visible to see progress. Measures continuous behavior, encouraging active responding.

Management of Self, or  SELF-MANAGEMENT: The student is asked to monitor his or her own progress on a skill or behavior. Making the student responsible for increases or reduction can also make them more aware of their behavior or action(s).

Next work on SHAPING – Successive approximations to the behavior are reinforced at every step. This may be used with students learning to write their name. At first we accept the letters will be backwards or possibly too large, as we shape the skill or behavior, we will slowly reinforce for steps more correctly resembling the “correct” or final goal we are looking for in the student’s handwriting. Reinforcement for the previous step is withheld as we move forward. 

Tracking the ABC’s: Instead of learning the alphabet, we want you to learn Antecedent (what happens before a behavior), Behavior (the targeted behavior) and Consequence (the immediate consequence following the behavior). This involves both reinforcement and punishment. The consequence is not a subjective “good or bad”; it is a behavior that is followed by an event that increases the behaviors future probability, voluntarily.

Premack Principle: Using this type of  “First_______Then_______” procedure; The teacher is able to encourage the completion of a non-preferred activity, with providing time to complete or participate in a preferred activity immediately following a pre-determined completion oh the non-preferred activity.

Quitting is easier when the reinforcer is not as important… ABOLISHING OPERATIONS “AO”: Decreases the value of a reinforcer.

{example}- The day after Halloween, providing an m&m to a child for turning in their homework as not as reinforcing as it may be at the end of the day in March.

REINFORCEMENT… POSITIVE/NEGATIVE:  Positive/Negative Reinforcement and Conditioned reinforcement are excellent tools for a teacher to use. Adding stimulus to increase or decrease a behavior, or removing stimulus to increase or decrease a behavior is an easily implemented technique.

SCATTERPLOT DATA:  This data collection tool highlights the time a behavior occurs. The teacher can make a simple tick mark or slash when the student displays the behavior the team is targeting. This data will allow the team to see when the behavior occurs most and proper antecedent control {see above} can be implemented.

Task ANALYSIS:   A task analysis provides a step-by-step procedure to complete a task. Perhaps a student would benefit from following the steps to buy their school lunch or complete a morning routine.

“U” want to have STIMULUS CONTROL as a teacher – We ALL have been in a class where someone acts out when there is a substitute or when the teacher leaves the room or turns around for a moment. This teacher has his or her students under stimulus control. Stimulus control occurs when behaviors are emitted more often in the presence of a certain stimuli, they are said to be under stimulus control.

{example}- When the student does their work, only when their teacher is present, the work being completed is a product of the stimulus control of the teacher.

VISUAL SCHEDULE:  Often, a visually displayed schedule will assist in keeping a student on track and knowing what to expect throughout the day. The expectations may reduce maladaptive behavior.

What do you want to work for? STIMULOUS PREFERANCE ASSESSMENT:  Figuring out what the student will “work” for. Grades are not enough for some individuals. Some students will work or behavior for a sticker, others to be placed on a “Good Job” list for the day.

EXTINCTION:   Removing the reinforcer for a previously reinforced behavior.

{example}-A student was removed from the classroom every time they yelled and acted out during classwork time. When extinction was implemented, removal from the classroom was no longer provided when the student yelled. The student eventually stopped yelling and acting out in class.

You are using contingency shaped behavior when you give a sticker each time a child turns in his homework. CONTINGENCY SHAPED BEHAVIOR-controlled by the history of reinforcement or punishment.

Zig E. Engelmann designed DIRECT INSTRUCTION. This small group teaching style, using scripts, choral responding, and frequent assessment.

 About the Author:    Kristen Jensen is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and author of an exam preparation study guide, The Beacon, leading the way to pass the exam. She serves as a supervisor to BCBA candidates, with experience in the school, home, clinic and hospital settings. Currently serving as Director of Beacon Behavior Therapy, Inc., Kristen is also an adjunct professor for National University, headquartered in La Jolla, California and is the administrator of various social media sites, preparing individuals for the BCBA exam.

PediaStaff hires pediatric and school-based professionals nationwide for contract assignments of 2 to 12 months. We also help clinics, hospitals, schools, and home health agencies to find and hire these professionals directly. We work with Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational and Physical Therapists, School Psychologists, and others in pediatric therapy and education.


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