Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Applied behaviour analysis in special education

Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is commonly used in educational settings and especially in children who show problem behaviours (for example, diagnosed with ADHD and autism).  ABA can be used to reduce problem behaviour through punishment and encourage good behaviour through rewards (positive reinforcement).

One essential diagnostic feature of autism is the presence of restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviours (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).  Ahearn et al. (2007) investigated whether ABA could reduce the frequency of stereotypic behaviours and increase the frequency of appropriate language.  They defined vocal stereotypy as any instance of non-contextual speech and including singing, babbling, repetitive mumbles, squeals, and phrases unrelated to the present situation.  When a child independently vocalised a request, the teacher would praise their use of appropriate language.  When vocal stereotypy occurred, they were interrupted immediately and given prompts for appropriate language (e.g. ‘‘what is your name?’’; ‘‘where do you live?’’).  Ahearn and colleagues found that after the intervention vocal stereotypes decreased to a low level and appropriate vocalisations occurred more often.  Therefore ABA can reduce problem behaviour in autistic children by discouraging the unwanted behaviour and encouraging the desired behaviour.

ADHD is a disorder characterized by problems with sustained attention, impulsivity, and over activity behaviours (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). In the classroom, children with ADHD have difficulty maintaining attention to tasks, completing work, following instructions, and obeying to general classroom rules (e.g. Barkley, 1990).  ABA can help reduce these problem behaviours and make life easier for teachers in the classroom.  For example, if a child shouts out in class, the teacher should reduce this negative behaviour by giving a punishment.  The child will want to avoid the negative event of being punished in the future so will no longer shout out in class.  The teacher should praise the child when they quietly raise their hand to answer a question.  This positive reinforcement will increase good behaviour because the child will want to experience the feeling of being praised again.  In their meta-analysis, Fabiano et al. (2009) showed that applied behaviour analysis is highly effective in reducing problem behaviour in those with ADHD.

So, when I come to work in special education schools in the future, I will be sure to use applied behaviour analysis when it comes to dealing with problem behaviours and helping children overcome language difficulties because it seems to work effectively.


Ahearn, W.H., Clark, K.M., MacDonald, R.P.F, & Chung, B.I. (2007). Assessing and treating vocal stereotypy in children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 263–275.

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV-TR). Washington DC: author.

Barkley, R. A. (1990). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: A handbook for diagnosis and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.

Fabiano, G. A., Pelham, W. E., Coles, E. K., Gnagy, E. M., Chronis-Tuscano, A., & O’Connor, B. C. (2009). A meta-analysis of behavioural treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 120-140.

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