I Love ABA!

Welcome to my blog all about Applied Behavior Analysis!

This blog is about my experiences, thoughts, and opinions on ABA. My career as an ABA provider is definitely a passion and a joy, and I love what I do.

This is a personal blog: The views and opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of the people, institutions, or organizations that I may be affiliated with.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Understanding M.O.: Motivating Operations

Motivating Operations (M.O.) is an important ABA concept that refers to the internal processes or desires of an individual that change or improve the value of a certain stimulus.  This change can improve the effectiveness or value of a certain reinforcer (E.O., or Establishing Operations), or it can reduce or lower the value of a certain reinforcer (A.O., or Abolishing Operations).

Basically when someone refers to M.O., they are describing Motivation.

So why is this an important concept for anyone who works with children with Autism to know? 

Well, one way that children with Autism may differ from NT children is a lack of motivation. It is that lack of motivation, or desire to please, that can cause a child with Autism not to exhibit behaviors many typical children do: point to objects excitedly (joint attention), make eye contact and smile, use communication effectively, display socially appropriate behaviors, etc. Children with Autism often need extra motivation to perform tasks or activities that typical children enjoy, or that typical children will perform to please someone else. 
For example, birthday parties are fun and exciting and the average child does not need extra motivation to attend one. But for a child with Autism birthday parties can be stressful, loud, chaotic, and overstimulating. So in order to get a child with Autism to go to the party it may be necessary to provide extra motivation. If you have a good understanding of M.O., it can be a powerful tool to make any stimulus  more motivating to your child or client.

Motivation is key within all aspects of life. Teachers often create highly motivating environments for their students using visuals supports within their classrooms, presentation of exciting curriculum units, and presentation of material using multimedia, such as showing a movie. Some students are intrinsically motivated to learn, and some are not. When you understand M.O. then you know how to take a non preferred item or activity, and make it preferred....even if only temporarily. Please see the example below:

You are trying to teach a 4 year old child with Autism to mand  for juice. So far you havent had much success getting many mands. You dont know if the child isnt manding because they dont like juice anymore, or because they dont want juice badly enough to use language. You are aware that manding needs to take place all throughout the day, so you offer juice to the child in the morning, afternoon, and evening, and you even vary the type of juice to see if that grabs the child's interest. Unfortunately none of these strategies seem to be increasing the frequency of mands.

Besides being an empirically supported behavioral tool, using M.O. correctly can save time and money. Instead of increasing time output by offering the child MORE juice, hoping that will get MORE mands, or increasing money output by buying apple juice, orange juice, and pineapple juice, try manipulating the M.O. 

Firstly, stop offering the child juice for a few days. Only allow them to drink water, milk, etc. This will make the juice more powerful when you bring it back because the child hasnt had it in a while. After a few days have passed wait until the child has an increased desire for juice. This could be after the child has been outside playing in the sun or after the child has eaten pretzels or salty snacks. Then offer juice to the child and try to get a mand. That is how you successfully use M.O. to manipulate the power, or desirability of a stimulus. ABA at its core is about manipulating the environment to bring about desired changes in behavior, and M.O. is an excellent tool to have in your arsenal. I use it all the time, and observe parents using it as well, even though they usually dont know what they just did has a technical name!
Trying to work with a child with Autism without understanding M.O. is like trying to ride a bike uphill vs. downhill- you are making your job harder. It would be much simpler to get the child to comply if you approach them with the knowledge of what their current M.O. is, and use that to your advantage.

Here are a few more examples of M.O.-

  1. "Fluid Loading" (providing free, unlimited, highly preferred fluids to drink) a child during potty training, to increase the likelihood they will have to urinate.
  2. Removing Skittles as a reinforcer because you notice the child just plays with the candy and doesnt eat it. Then bringing the Skittles back the next month, to increase the likelihood the child will want the candy.
  3. If you are trying to teach a child about automobiles, wait until they are playing with their Thomas the Tank Engine toy to have them learn the label "train".
  4. If you are working during a session with a child who is refusing to sit in their chair, go outside and have them jump, swing, run, hop, etc, and exert physical energy. Then take them back to the table, to increase the likelihood that they will want to sit down.
  5. Dont work on self help skills such as proper fork grip, and drinking from an open mouthed cup, at arbitrary times of the day. Work on these skills during mealtimes, so the child is more likely to want to want to use the skill so they can receive the reward (food).


  1. Thank you so much. It helps me to understand M.O. :)

  2. Tameika, the information is helpful even though I am struggling with M.O.'s. I am currently a student and I have not had that "aha" moment with M.O.'s.

    1. M.O.'s can sometimes be more relevant the more you know the client. I know for particular clients (who I have a great relationship with) when they are most and least able to focus or attend, based on their mood, did they sleep the night before, did they eat lunch at school, etc.
      Understanding and being aware of the power of M.O. will help you greatly when working with clients, so hang in there!

  3. Hi, what about using M.O.s to get children to do other non-preferred tasks. My client loves to run around outside with his family. If they are home it is much more difficult to reinforce and motivate him with the usual items. My supervisor wants me to make other items motivating by using creativity but even she had difficulty with this and ultimately it was I who regained his attention and MO. Is there a way we can use his desire to leave the therapy room for play to our advantage. My supervisor also doesn't want us playing in the therapy room, yet she wants him to be motivated to go there. My supervisor and I are making each other anxious and defensive. Help resolve this!

    1. Hello,

      It isnt uncommon that M.O. changes when the family/caregivers are present, whats happening is you are basically competing with the reinforcement they present. Have you tried incorporation them into the sessions? If the client is leaving the therapy area, is it to go be with the family? If so, use that to your advantage. Some pairing up of the work area and yourself would likely help you as well. I strongly recommend discussing this further with your supervisor and expressing your concerns and difficulties until you have an effective treatment plan to implement. If the supervisee-supervisor relationship is difficult or combative, I suggest speaking with the company owner.

      Good luck!

  4. Hi Tameika, I was having a hard time understanding M.O.s using the textbook but thank you, thank you, thank you for the explanation and examples, sounds so much easier. Great blog.

    1. It was difficult for me to understand at first too! Glad this was helpful :-)

  5. We currently receive ABA therapy for our son. When our son is no longer interested in the rewards or incentives, the therapists want to force him to sit in his chair which has resulted in battles for hours. I do not agree with this philosophy and have told them to focus on the reinforcers. I have provided lots of different items and volunteered to reimburse them for any reinforcers that they want to buy or bring to the session or to buy anything they think I should get. So far, they have not come up with any reinforcers and have told me that is not the ABA method. They think children should be able to work for 5 hours with any food item or dvd and if they can't they should be forced. Its so weird because our son works really well when things are not so boring. Do ABA therapists typically try to help figure out what motivates the child or is it typically the parents sole responsibility?

    1. Hello,

      I have included a link to the BACB (Behavior Analysis Certification Board) ethical code that certified/credentialed individuals must abide by: http://bacb.com/ethics/

      As a parent, I encourage that you become very familiar with the ethical and professional guidelines to how ABA professionals must provide services.

      Also, in my free resources section I have several resources about choosing a quality and ethical ABA provider, and how to recognize if you are dealing with an ethical provider or not. All of these resources can be downloaded at no cost.

      If the provider you are working with does not line up with the ethical standards for the practice of ABA, the strategies implemented are not evidence based, and the program is not overseen by a BCBA or BCBA-D, then I do not recommend continuing with that provider.

      Thank you for commenting,