Applied Behavioural Therapy (ABA) – teaching new skills

2. Be systematic in how you select what to teach

A Behaviour Analyst will always conduct assessments to determine a person’s strengths, areas of need and preferences.  All of the information garnered from these assessments will inform how we teach and what we teach.  In the case of determining what to teach, these would be called curriculum assessments.  They also provide information on the types of skills that are pre-requisites.  For example, I am currently working on teaching my son to read.  I started with teaching him to identify each of the letters and the sounds that each letter makes before I go in to teaching him how to sound out a word.  Identifying and sounding out the different letters is a prerequisite to sounding out a word.

3. Clinical decisions are based on objective data

Although it was not mentioned in the example above, an approach that is based on ABA would make all clinical decisions based on objective data.  When the little boy started to engage in challenging behaviour, we were collecting data on that, and it informed how we set up his program.  The same goes for teaching new skills, we looked at his strengths and preferences but also which areas he specifically needed help with in order to develop the most effective program for that little boy.  Any program that is based on ABA is informed by this type of objective data and helps to ensure we are focusing on the right things at the right time.  Learning in a classroom environment is not an easy thing to do.  We had to break that skill down into component parts and gradually increase the challenge for him.  You can check out a previous blog that I wrote on how to do that here.

4. Make sure they can use it when they need it most!

The example above of a 5 year old boy who was learning all kinds of amazing things in one context and who appeared to have lost it in another context highlights this truly important standard.  As a Behaviour Analyst it is important to remember that it doesn’t matter if all of the things we are teaching our students/clients happen with us and nowhere else…it does not serve them that way!

It is important that we transfer what we know has worked with a new teacher, his/her parents, his/her educators or whomever might be working with them.  Furthermore, it is important that we ensure that whatever we teach them is accessible to them wherever they are.  For example, it does not help my student if he can only use the bathroom functionally when he is with me at my centre.  It is not serving my client well if he continues to have accidents at home or at school.

Similarly it is not helpful to my client/student if he/she can ask for food when they are hungry, or go and get something to eat themselves for that matter when they are hungry and with me but not when they are at home or at school.  It is critical that we make sure that they can use those skills when it matters to them.  This means that we need to teach them to discriminate those kinds of contexts.  What I mean by this is teaching them that a particular sensation means that I am hungry and I can alleviate that discomfort by eating something.

As you can see I am super passionate about ABA and what it can do to improve a person’s quality of life.  For more information on the different standards that a program that is based on ABA should adhere to please visit the BACB website.


Editor’s Note:  Opinions expressed by Autism Daily Newscast Contributors are their own.

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About Sarah Kupferschmidt

Sarah is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst who and Co-Founder of Special Appucations. She is a professor, TEDx Speaker as well as a top safety writer for Autism Parenting Magazine. Sarah has worked with hundreds of children and youth with autism and their families and has clinically supervised and trained staff on how to implement treatment strategies that are based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Her mission is to empower parents and educators who work with children with special needs with skills that will improve his/her quality of life. You can follow here on Twitter.


  1. nathalie dowling says:

    Every time I see the use of terms such as “treatment” and “clinical” in an ABA article, I feel that my child has a form of cancer and applications of ABA principles are the type chemotherapy treatments that are going to cure her malignant infection. As a parent of a child with autism, I find it rather disturbing in the context of an educational program. Of course, some applications of ABA principles are valuable in teaching critical skills to some children with Autism, but please be mindful that from a parent perspective, this is about education not about a medical cure. Regards, Nathalie