Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Intellectual Disabilities

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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.

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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.

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