ABA in The Classroom

Applied Behavior Analysis is not just a reputable and empirically supported treatment method for managing the symptoms of Autism. It's much larger than that.

ABA is for anyone who wants to improve, manage, or reduce behaviors, and a behavior is any observable and measurable action.
ABA at its core is a way to teach. I'm not a teacher, but much of what I do involves helping individuals learn. If I am working with a 5 year old who bites his fingers to escape a task, it is my job to teach that child other replacement behaviors to request a break from tasks. All great ABA therapists are great teachers. What would really be amazing was if all great teachers were also trained in basic ABA knowledge.

This post is for special education teachers, teachers in Autism classrooms, and general education teachers who are dealing with persistent, challenging behaviors. ABA strategies can be successfully used on any student exhibiting problem behaviors in the classroom. Behaviors such as:

*        Attention seeking behaviors
*        Difficulty transitioning
*        Poor social skills
*        Lack of waiting skills
*        Tantrums
*        Disrespectful to teacher
*        Inattentiveness
*        Elopement (wont stay in classroom)
*        Hyperactivity/Fidgety
*        Aggressive
*        Destructive (throw things, break chairs, etc)

Essentially, teachers who are trained and equipped to “Think Like a Behavior Analyst”  are teachers who will lower job stress, improve teacher student relationships, and maintain control over their classroom.

Recommended Strategies:
1.      Understand that all behavior has a purpose, and learn how to determine the function of behavior- As a teacher you might be familiar with the ABC’s of behavior- Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. This three term contingency is the backbone of the work that ABA professionals do. We seek to improve or reduce behaviors by determining what is maintaining the behavior. Behaviors don’t just happen and persistent behaviors are being maintained, or strengthened, by something. My job, and maybe 80% of what I do, is to figure out what that “something” is. This takes patience, dedication, and most importantly the belief that the behavior serves a purpose for that child. If I walked into a classroom and came up with a behavioral intervention without first determining the function of the behavior, then what I am actually doing is little more than guessing. The intervention I come up with might work, and it might not. With many behaviors, professionals don't have time for guesswork. If a student is headbanging 7 times a day, it would be unethical and dangerous to "guess" at an intervention and take the risk that the behavior could worsen. Research has shown that when the function of a problem behavior is not determined prior to intervention, the resulting intervention tends to be punishment based. In other words, the goal is just to make the behavior stop. The problem with that approach is the need that the function served is still there - - it hasn’t gone away.
2.      Understand reinforcement and consequences, and how to effectively deliver them- Reinforcement and consequences are facts of life. We all receive a variety of consequences throughout our day as we interact with the environment. Humans (and animals) will go to a great deal of effort to contact pleasurable things, and to avoid unpleasant or painful things. Bring this knowledge into the classroom. Focus on and give your attention to the behaviors you want to strengthen: sitting quietly, waiting appropriately, finishing assignments on time. Ignore, redirect, or provide a consequence for behaviors you don’t want to strengthen: hitting peers, throwing books, yelling “no” at the teacher. It may feel odd to ignore such disrespectful behaviors, but it’s important to realize that attention is a powerful source of reinforcement for most kids. For some students, removal of teacher attention is a strong enough consequence to diminish a behavior.
3.      Modify the environment: Visual supports are your friend- When I go into classrooms to conduct an observation or to meet with a teacher, I usually spend the first few minutes just walking around the room. Many times I see issues in the environment that may be causing or maintaining problem behavior. To name a few: the child who has issues with attending is seated right next to the window, the child with severe Autism sits directly under a fluorescent bulb, and the child who always refuses to clean up is playing in a messy and disorganized play area where nothing is labeled. Many persistent behavioral problems are maintained or made worse by chaotic or poorly organized environments. The classroom lacks structure, rules are not clear to students, transitions happen suddenly and without warning, etc. An ideal classroom to promote appropriate behavior from students will be organized, quiet, divided into clear sections, and follow a schedule that is taught to all the children.
4.      Consistency, consistency, consistency- Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Do not let any demand come out of your mouth that you are not prepared to enforce if you have to. Don’t shout across the room to a child climbing up onto their desk “Get down right now!”, unless you have a course of action ready for if the child completely ignores you. I often say to ABA therapists “Don’t back yourself into a corner with your words”.  If I say to a student at the lunch table “We’re not leaving this table until you eat all that food” then I have backed myself into a corner. What if it takes the child 15 minutes to eat an apple? What if the child chooses to fling their lunch tray across the room? Instead, I would say something like “First you need to eat your hot dog, and then we can go buy an ice cream”. If the child still refuses to eat their food or engages in aggressive behaviors, then I can just decide that lunch is over and take the child back to the classroom without getting any ice cream. I never made eating food a requirement to leave the table; I made eating food a requirement to get a treat.
5.      Understand MO, and how to capture it- MO, or Motivating Operations, is a way of describing motivation. At any time in the day my MO for certain activities will be stronger or weaker. My MO for drinking orange juice will be very low if I just brushed my teeth. My MO for answering my cell phone will be much higher during work hours than it will when I am sleeping. Understand how to assess a child’s MO and then use that to your advantage. MO is very unique to individuals, and it can increase and decrease all day long. Have a system of reinforcement in place that is tailored to each student.
6.      Be open to change and trying new things: If the behavior isn’t improving it isn’t the child’s fault, it’s a faulty behavior plan- Challenging, persistent behaviors require a well thought out and consistent behavior plan. I’d say the #1 reason most properly written behavior plans fail is a lack of consistency. The special education teacher follows the behavior plan, but no one told the Music teacher how to handle the behavior. Or the behavior plan doesn't include strategies for what to do if the behavior escalates. To implement ABA strategies correctly you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves, face a problem behavior head-on, and stick to the behavior plan.  If you can persevere through the child's worst, then you just may get to see them at their best.

      Teachers, have realistic expectations about the behaviors you decide to intervene on. Ask yourself if you can honestly deal with seeing the behavior worsen before progress begins. Decide if you can stick to a behavior plan and be consistent in your follow through. Letting a problem behavior take control of your classroom is just as bad as starting to intervene, then backing down. In both of those situations you are reinforcing the problem behavior and making it stronger.
      Ultimately your actions and behaviors  are what will determine the success of any behavioral intervention you create. 

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