Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) And Intellectual Disabilities

Authors: Tammy Reynolds, B.A., C.E. Zupanick, PSY.D., & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

So far, we have discussed four effective teaching strategies for people with intellectual disabilities (ID, formerly mental retardation). However, these effective teaching strategies did not develop by happenstance. Instead, these teaching strategies emerged from an educational method known as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Applied Behavioral Analysis rests on a solid foundation of research. This research has investigated how humans (and animals) learn. It comprises a large body of literature known as behavioral psychology.

The ABA approach utilizes two, well-researched learning theories. These are: 1) classical conditioning and 2) operant conditioning. The ABA does not require great intellectual ability in order for learning to be successful. Thus, ABA is ideally suited for people with intellectual disabilities.

In its most basic form, ABA is very simple and common sense. It rewards a person for making a correct choice. Incorrect choices are ignored, or not rewarded. Therefore, students learn by making simple associations between cause and effect. With repetition, a student learns to associate a correct action with a reward. As such, this correct choice will be repeated. An incorrect action does not earn a reward. When not rewarded, behaviors begin to slowly fade away. This process is known as extinction.


Here is the basic approach for ABA:

  • First, complex tasks or behaviors are broken down into smaller steps. For instance, suppose a student needs to learn to raise his hand before speaking in a classroom. This might be broken down into five steps:
    • 1) Raise the hand.
    • 2) Raise the hand while remaining silent.
    • 3) Keep the hand raised, remaining silent, until the teacher acknowledges you.
    • 4) Once the teacher acknowledges you, put the hand down.
    • 5) After the hand is down, speak.
  • Skills are systematically introduced in small steps. As one small skill is mastered, the next step is introduced.
  • Students learn by making simple associations between cause and effect. If they respond correctly for that step, they are immediately rewarded. If they respond incorrectly, nothing happens.
  • Once a step is consistently mastered, the next step is rewarded, instead of the previously mastered step. This process is known as chaining.

Example: Billy
Suppose Billy has learned the first step. The first step is simply to raise his hand. He talks while his hand is raised because he hasn't learned step two yet.

Now step two is introduced. Billy will not receive a reward when he raises his hand and is talking. At first, he will be puzzled by this. He previously earned a reward for raising his hand. He may be instructed to stop talking and will receive a reward when he does. Alternatively, he might raise his hand without talking by sheer coincidence. He would immediately receive a reward. Step two is learned because once Billy discontinues speaking and chattering while his hand is raised, he will immediately receive a reward.

This step is repeated until Billy can consistently raise his hand while remaining silent. Then he will begin practicing the next step and so on. This continues until the entire behavioral chain is mastered.


ABA's emphasis on providing immediate rewards for correct behavior is crucial to motivation. However, the reward must be valuable or desired. Each student will find different things rewarding. Only rewards that are intrinsically rewarding have a motivational effect. Rewards that are not gratifying will not reward or motivate someone.

  • For instance, if you dislike chocolate candy, Hershey kisses ® would not be rewarding. Therefore, they would not serve to motivate and teach a new behavior.

When the ABA is initially introduced, rewards must be immediate and concrete. Snacks and food rewards work well for this purpose. For behaviors that require more sustained effort, such as remaining on task for 30 minutes, a more sustained reward may be appropriate. This might be permission to watch a favorite TV show, or to play an exciting game.


As students become familiar with the instruction and reward process, a more abstract "token" reward system can be introduced.

  • Token reward systems use visual representations. Common examples are stickers placed on a chart, or beads placed on a bracelet.
  • These represent a student's progress towards an ultimate, concrete reward. For example, once the child earns five stickers he can play a game or watch a program.
  • The token reward system is a little more complex and abstract than immediate and concrete rewards. However, it is very effective for increasing on-task behavior. Furthermore, it teaches students to delay their gratification.

ABA's modern emphasis provides rewards for correct behavior and ignoring incorrect behavior. However, this was not always so. In the early days of ABA, incorrect choices were not merely ignored. Rewards were balanced with punishments for undesired behavior. Today, negative or undesired behaviors are usually ignored or redirected, rather than punished. The only exceptions are "non-negotiable" circumstances.

Dangerous behaviors are considered "non-negotiable." These types of behavior may require immediate negative consequences. For obvious reasons, dangerous behavior cannot be ignored. Ignoring someone who is starting a fire is a bad idea! Dangerous behaviors include any behaviors that threaten, or cause significant harm to anyone.

  • Some examples are banging one's head against the wall, or biting other children.
  • The other non-negotiable behaviors are ones that cause significant damage to property. This might include setting fires or throwing computer equipment off a desk.
  • Common consequences include time-outs, or loss of preferred play items and activities.
  • In the case of self-harm, the least restrictive rule prevails. Physical restraints or protective devices (such as a helmet) may be used. These behaviors and consequences are outlined in the safety crisis management plan. An individualized safety crisis management plan is routinely developed for at-risk children. It spells out what the negative consequences are for dangerous behaviors.
Comments
  • Sonya

    I think it's terrible that the term "Mental Retardation is still being used. The proper term is "Intellectual Disability". Mental Retardation is extremely degrading and outdated.

  • Heather

    My youngest son is "mentally retarded". I teach students who are "mentally retarded". The word retarded is Latin for "go back, to delay". One who is retarded is delayed in some way. There is nothing inaccurate or inappropriate about the term. It accurately describes the person who suffers from it. There are members of society who want everything to be P.C., and fail to look at the accuracies of certain descriptors and labels, i.e. White or Caucasian? Black or African-American? Whichever term you use is appropriate because it accurately describes the subject.

  • The other Dr. Phil

    Although some feel the term has pejorative meaning, it is, in fact, the technical term for persons with IQ scores below 65-70 and impairments in adaptive behavior functioning (per the DSM-IV).

  • Janice

    Disability is a no less degrading a term than retardation. So many alternative terms have been thrown out there, but no matter what words you use, you can't change the reality. The nicer and more sugar coated the term, the more it sounds like someone doesn't have mental retardation. Sort of a "white lie." The sugar coating only works for a while, until the child starts to grow up. Then one is forced to accept that mental retardation is a more serious and limiting condition than we had hoped it would be. Whenever I see parents of mentally retarded children get emotional about the words mental retardation, I suspect they have not yet come to grips with accepting that their children have such an "ugly" socially unacceptable condition. They are too embarassed. Instead of worrying about terms, I'd like to see us work on our attitude that MR is ugly. People who have MR make contributions to our world that, although they may be of a different sort, are valuable to individuals and society. We need to make it socially acceptable to have the condition. And we parents need to lead the way.

  • Teresa

    My son is mentally retarded. It is his official diagnosis, and it perfectly describes his "condition." Any other PC term requires further explanation as to "why he is the way he is" to anyone just meeting him. I am not offended by it and neither is he--as he understands it his brain (mental) works more slowly (retarded).

  • Sarfraz Masih

    I am Director of a Centre for Special Children. I think no matter what you use Mentally retardation or Intellectual Disability. The main point is to understand to the people with this problem and it should be understandable for the parents and other community members.

    To respect them, and work with them is important than words.

  • Joan

    This is an excellent article that explians ABA in a clear and easy to understand manner. As often happens in special education....a great opportunity for discussion is being missed by focussing on the terminology....The fact is that historically the terms used for this condition always has and always will be subject to a process called the euphemism treadmill. This means that whatever term is chosen for this condition, even the latest term "intellectual developmental disorder" that is now being used in the DSMV, will eventually becomes perceived as an insult. So why stress about using terminology that in a few years will also be considered offensive. Would be nice to see time and energy put into a discussion about the information presented.....