ABA Terms and Meanings

April 15, 2020 - Victoria Oliver, MA, BCBA

ABA Terms and Meanings

By Victoria Oliver,
MA, BCBA

When entering into the world of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for the first time, many parents and caregivers are introduced to countless terms and meanings that may be brand new to them. Without any prior knowledge in this field, it can be very overwhelming to gain an understanding of ABA and can seem like a totally different language. Knowing this, Cornerstone Autism Center works diligently with its parents and caregivers to help them understand this type of therapy. In this blog, we will be going over common terms used on a daily basis in ABA therapy along with examples of what some of these terms mean.

A “stimulus” is an energy change that affects an organism through its receptor cells. An example of this might be when a baby crawls into a room and sees a shiny object, such as a toy. In this case, the toy is the stimulus. Stimuli (plural of a stimulus) can come in many forms and affect various senses, such as hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. Stimuli can affect each child in different ways. For example, one child might enjoy loud music while another finds loud music aversive and covers their ears. Even so, some stimuli might be neutral to a child and not elicit any response at all.

A “discriminative stimulus” (SD) is a stimulus in which the presence of the behavior produces reinforcement. At Cornerstone, an SD is any demand that we place on the child that signals to them that reinforcement is available. An example might be if a therapist tells their learner “touch your nose!” In the past, the child has learned that the act of touching their nose when they were told to do so has led to playtime with toys; so, the child responds by touching their nose. The therapist says, “Good job, kiddo! That’s touching your nose!” and then gives the child the toy car that they were working for. In this case, “touch your nose,” was the SD, the presence of the behavior that produced reinforcement was the act of the child touching their nose and receiving the toy car was the reinforcement. This process helps teach our learners new skills and motivates them to follow directions!

Motivating operations” (MOs) are variables in the environment that alter the value of a particular reinforcer at a particular time. MOs make a stimulus more or less reinforcing and cause the behavior to occur. In other words, MOs are merely the motivations behind behavior. There are two types of MOs: establishing operations and abolishing operations. Establishing operations increase the value of a reinforcer. Since many of our learners are motivated by food, let’s use snacks as an example! Let’s say it’s been a few hours since breakfast and the child is starting to get hungry for lunch. Since being hungry makes food more valuable, it’s an establishing operation. On the other hand, let’s say the child just finished lunch and the therapist was trying to use the learner’s favorite snacks as a reinforcer during programming. Suddenly, the child gets up from the table and walks away—this leaves the therapist scratching their head, thinking “but… Cheetos are his favorite!” Even though the child does indeed love Cheetos, if they just ate lunch, they might have a full belly. Therefore, being full is an abolishing operation because when you’re full, food is less valuable. A more in-depth training on motivation operations can be found here.

A “prompt” is an added stimulus that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur in the presence of a new stimulus. In other words, prompts can help our learners to succeed! When an SD for a new target is given, it is often paired with the prompt (the added stimulus) to guarantee that our learner will achieve the desired response. For example, if a therapist is helping the child learn to wash their hands for the first time, they might pair the SD “wash your hands” with helping the learner learn the steps of hand washing through hand-over-hand prompting. Prompt training can be explained in this training video.

Shaping” is the gradual process of reinforcing consecutive approximations toward an end target/goal while withholding reinforcement for poor approximations. Shaping can be used across all operants, from emitting language to tying shoes, and it might look different for every child. Since functional communication is a critical skill that is worked on daily at Cornerstone, we’re going to use an example of shaping procedures during mand training. Let’s say the child’s favorite reinforcer is bubbles, and the end goal is to get the learner to vocally ask for “bubbles.” At first, the therapist prompts the child to say “buh”—once the child says “buh,” the therapist immediately blows bubbles and tells the child “good job saying ‘buh,’ these are BUH-bbles!” After the child is consistently emitting “buh” for bubbles, the therapist takes it further and prompts the child to start saying “buh-buh” when they want to play with bubbles. If the child says “buh-buh,” then the therapist gives more praise and blows bubbles again. Let’s say that after the child is consistently saying “buh buh” for a few days then one day just says “buh” for bubbles. At this point, the therapist knows that the child is capable of saying “buh-buh” so they do not blow bubbles again and instead they prompt the child to say “buh buh.” This type of shaping helps teach the child what the expectations are in order to gain access to reinforcement. Eventually, thanks to shaping procedures, the child will go from saying “buh” to “bubbles” when wanting to play with bubbles!

Differential reinforcement” is delivering reinforcement based upon the learner’s response. At Cornerstone when the learner emits a more independent response, they get a larger amount of their chosen reinforcer. On the other hand, if the learner requires more intrusive prompting or engages in target behaviors during programming, then they get a smaller amount of their chosen reinforcer. These amounts can be in increments of time, the number of items that the learner receives, or even the amount of social praise given to the learner. For example, let’s say that the child is working for their favorite snack, popcorn. During programming, if the learner independently gets a program correct for the first time, the therapist might give the client a whole handful of popcorn along with very excited praise for getting the correct response. If the learner errors on the program and must be prompted to give the correct response, the therapist might only give the learner a single piece of popcorn and allow them to try for more popcorn on the next trial.

Discrete trial training” is a teaching method that is used often in ABA to teach new skills to learners. Discrete trial training is adult-led instruction and is a very common procedure used during programming at Cornerstone. Three parts go into discrete trial training—the therapist places a demand (SD), the learner gives a response, and feedback is given to the learner. For example, the therapist asks the learner “what does a cat say?” (the SD), the learner says “meow” (the response), and the therapist tells the learner “You’re right! A cat does say meow, good job!” (the feedback). The following training video will give a better understanding of this term.

Errorless teaching” is a procedure that includes prompting before the learner has the chance to make an error; ensuring success for our learners. Errorless teaching is used at Cornerstone to teach our learners new targets. The following is an example of errorless teaching: 1. the therapist tells the child “show me waving” (the SD) then immediately prompts the child by physically moving their palm in a waving motion, 2. the therapist repeats the same SD (“show me waving”) and implements a transfer trial by fading the prompt—modeling what waving looks like for the learner and expecting the learner to copy the accurate motion, 3. the therapist runs what we call “distractor trials” using 2-3 maintenance targets to ensure that the child is truly attending to the SD instead of just rote responding, and 4. the therapist repeats the same SD for the last time via the returned trial and allows the learner to wave on their own, providing reinforcement for the correct response.

A “transfer trial” is implemented after a prompted trial during errorless teaching to fade prompts and transfer control of the response to the SD rather than the prompt. In the above definition of errorless teaching, step #2 is an example of a transfer trial, when the prompt is faded from a physical prompt to a model prompt for the response of waving.

An “acquisition target” is a task that still requires prompting from an adult to achieve the desired response. In other words, it’s a target or skill that the learner still needs to “acquire.” Acquisition targets are taught via errorless teaching to ensure success for the learner. An example of an acquisition target could be any skill that is new to the child, like stating their name when asked.

A “maintenance target” is a task that does not require prompting and that the child has already acquired. Maintenance targets are previously mastered and used before learning acquisition targets to build behavioral momentum. An example of a maintenance target could be any skill that the child already knows and can do independently, such as “spin around.”

Behavioral momentum” is a metaphor to describe a rate of responding and its resistance to change following an alteration in reinforcement conditions. Simply put, behavioral momentum uses maintenance targets to build “momentum” before what you want the child to learn. Behavioral momentum uses high-probability request sequences (skills that the learner has a high-probability of getting correct; aka maintenance targets) before new low-probability request sequences (skills that the learner has a low-probability of getting correct; aka the acquisition target). Behavioral momentum helps to build the confidence of the learners when working on new programs. For example, when behavioral momentum is used, various maintenance targets are placed in a row by the therapist and the learner might think “hey, yeah! I keep getting these right—this stuff is easy!” and then when the harder SD (the acquisition target) is placed, the learner might think, “Okay, this one is a little bit trickier, but I got the past 3 questions right, I can do this!” This helps set our learners up for success during therapy!

Extinction” is the procedure in which reinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior is stopped and as a result, occurrences of that behavior decrease in the future. At Cornerstone, we utilize extinction to decrease inappropriate behaviors. For example, let’s say that the child usually emits a high-pitched screech when they want attention at home because when they typically emit a screech, their parents rush over to them. Since this screeching behavior has gotten attention in the past, when the child wants the attention of their therapist at Cornerstone, they emit a high-pitched screech. If we want to put the screeching behavior on extinction, then the therapists will need to avoid giving attention to the child for screeching behavior. Once the child learns that the screeching behavior no longer gets the attention that they desire, the screeching stops. An “extinction burst” is a temporary increase in occurrences, intensity, or duration of a target behavior that was previously placed on extinction. Related to the above example, when the child starts noticing that his normal high-pitched screech isn’t getting the attention like it used to, they might start to screech louder or for a longer period of time in an attempt to get their parents’ attention. When extinction bursts happen, it’s critical to continue to put that behavior on extinction to further decrease that behavior.

Spontaneous recovery” is a reappearance of behavior after it has faded to its pre-reinforced level and/or stopped entirely. Let’s say that a teenager in high school hears a school bell and knows that it’s time to collect their things and go to a different class. This teenager eventually graduates and moves on to full-time work as an adult. One day during a meeting at work, the adult hears a bell that is identical to the bell from their high school days—without thinking, the adult starts packing up their things and starts to leave the meeting. Even though the adult hadn’t heard a school bell in a long time, they spontaneously engaged in that same behavior when they heard it again in adulthood.

Having a basic understanding of Applied Behavior Analysis is the first step to navigating this new field. With this information, parents and caregivers can have the ability and confidence to help their children learn and grow. For more information about these terms, be sure to visit Cornerstone Autism Center’s website at www.cornerstoneautismcenter.com for resources on all things ABA.

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April 15, 2020, Victoria Oliver, MA, BCBA

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