By: Frank Kou, MSEd, BCBA, NYS LBA

What Are the Principles of ABA?

In order to learn and understand them, one must know what ABA is. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied to improve socially significant behavior, and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for the improvement in behavior (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007).

Three Terms of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

1) Applied – In terms of ABA, it is the commitment to affecting improvements in behaviors that enhance and improve people’s lives. In addition, it is also to improve the relationships of the client with his/her environment including the interactions with those around him/her. Practitioners must select behaviors to change that are socially significant for the client that may include but not limited to social, language, academic, daily living, self-care, vocational, and/or recreation and leisure behaviors.

2) Behavioral – In terms of ABA, behaviors must meet three criteria. First, the behavior in question must be the behavior in need of improvement. It cannot be a similar behavior that serves as a proxy for the behavior of interest or another person’s description of the behavior. Second, the behavior must be observable and measurable. Behaviors have to show change over time. Third, when changes in the behavior do occur, it is necessary to ask whose behaviors have changed. Is it that of the clients or that of the practitioners? All behaviors of the both parties should be monitored if possible.

3) Analysis – In terms of ABA, analysis is analytic meaning that there was a demonstration of functional relation between the manipulated events and a reliable change in some measurable dimension of the targeted behavior. In other words, the practitioner can control the behavior from happening or not happening.

Applied Behavior Analysis Principles

By using ABA principles, practitioners can support individuals in multiple ways that may include the following:

  • Teach new skills that an individual previously did not have. For example, teaching an individual how to use utensils when eating when previously individual only used fingers to eat.
  • Increase positive and/or more socially acceptable behaviors. For example, having individual greet a peer or attend to a speaker.
  • Maintain behaviors. For example, having an individual continue with a conversation using skills that were previously learned.
  • Generalize or transfer behaviors from one environment and/or person to another environment and/or person. For example, having an individual put on his/her coat both at home, and at school.
  • Reduce interfering or challenging behaviors. For example, reducing an individual’s out of seat and wandering around the classroom behavior.

Using Applied Behavior Analysis in the Real World

Now that Applied Behavior Analysis and its principles have been discussed, how is ABA used in the real world? Practitioners use the ABC model in order to observe and change behaviors. ABC stands for antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. Each of the components will be discussed below.

a) Antecedents – Antecedents are situations or events that come before a behavior. Oftentimes they are described as the “trigger” for the behavior that follows. An antecedent can have many forms ranging from an event (i.e. loud phone ringing), to a person (i.e. regular teacher versus substitute teacher), or an object (i.e. stop sign) in the environment that cues a person to do something. An example of an antecedent is child having a tantrum because teacher said it was time to come in from recess {antecedent}.

b) Behaviors – Behaviors are any actions that can be observed, timed, or counted. Everything that a person does can be described as a behavior. In ABA, practitioners try to understand “why” or the function of the disruptive “problem” behavior in question in order to change it for the better. There are four main functions for behavior: 1) Escape or avoid a situation 2) Attention from other people 3) Tangible – to gain access to something he/she wants 4) Sensory – pleasing to the person “automatically rewarding.” When working with behaviors, it is important that the behaviors are described in specific details in order for all parities involved to observe and measure the same thing. For example “tantrum” is vague versus screaming in a loud voice and stomping a foot against a hard surface, which is a better description.

c) Consequences – Consequences is the term used to describe what happened immediately after the behavior occurred. It is also known as a response to the target behavior. Consequences can occur in two different ways. The first is natural in which they are the inevitable result of the person’s own action. For example, a person gets burned and hurt for touching an open flame. The second is logical in which they are imposed by another person, usually an authoritative figure. For example, a person receives a ticket by the police for speeding.

In the real world, practitioners use the ABC model to get a better understanding of the behavior in question. By manipulating the antecedents and/or consequences of the behavior, practitioners can increase a positive behavior, decrease a problem behavior, or maintain a behavior.


  • Bearss, K., Johnson, C.R, Handen, B.L., (2018). Parent Training for Disruptive Behavior – The RUBI Autism Network. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007) Applied Behavior Analysis, Second Edition.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Lovaas, O. I. (1987). Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55(1), 3-9.


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