More Than Treats

I am often asked how to improve a behavior plan for a student. I typically get asked what needs to be changed because a student has seemed to “learn the system” and can get the reward while strategically not doing certain assignments or misbehaving at certain times during the school day. I am not a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and those who ask know this fact. Today, I will share my quick applied behavior analysis (ABA) tips for teachers.

Disclaimer: These are tips I have learned through graduate course and independent studies of the discipline. In order to set a proper behavior plan, or for more in depth tips, please consult a board certified behavioral analyst (BCBA).

ABCs of Behavior Analysis

ABA consists of identifying the problem behavior, antecedents and/or setting events that may trigger the behavior, and consequences that maintain the problem behavior. This data can lead you to hypothesize the function the problem behavior serves. There are many functions of behavior; some common examples include to gain or to escape attention, to gain or to escape a tangible, and/or to gain or to escape sensory stimulation. The goal with ABA is to teach students skills and behaviors that are appropriate and will replace the problem behavior while serving the same function. For example, a student is always “inattentive” during math class by not looking at the teacher, not doing work, banging on the desk and/or getting up and walking around the classroom. The teacher looks for antecedents and notices harsh light comes through the window around the time math class begins. The teacher modifies the environment by closing the blinds for that portion of class, but some light still spills through. The teacher then decides to teach the student to raise his hand and ask to sit at the back table if the light is bothering him. After learning trials with different reward systems and schedules, the student learns this behavior and replaces it with the inappropriate behavior.

Active, Not Passive, Teaching

inside-a-class-room-school-1435436-639x425Many teachers believe that if they correct the bad behavior in the moment, or ignore it and reward good behavior that the student’s problems will be fixed. However, these teachers realize that things aren’t going quite according to plan a few weeks later. What they do not realize is that behavior has to treated like any subject in school. If you want a child to learn to not get up and run around, you need to modify the environment and actively teach the replacement behavior; you cannot expect a child to magically figure out a more appropriate behavior, just like you would not expect a child to figure out correct answers to an unfamiliar subject.

More Than Treats

child-with-ice-cream-1465037-639x852By now you should know that ABA is more than just giving treats or rewards for good behavior. Treats and rewards can be excellent reinforcement to learning appropriate behavior; however, many teachers do not know how to execute the practice. Without going into too much detail, reinforcement needs to vary in type and amount. There are many different methods that can be used (and I will not begin to discuss those methods). Sticking to the same routine for too long can lead a student to become disinterested in the process of learning a new behavior, or can create new inappropriate behaviors down the road. The goal is to eventually replace extrinsic rewards with intrinsic rewards and to show the student how a socially and/or physically appropriate behavior can serve the same function as the problem behavior, but without any adverse consequences.


ABA is not as easy as it sounds. Teachers realize this after they have tried and failed at the system they thought was ABA. A BCBA should be consulted if a teacher wants a solid plan in place to teach appropriate behavior, including a reinforcement schedule/system. The key points I always give are: 1. Identify the function, 2. Actively teach good behavior, and 3. Vary reinforcement schedules and rewards. While these tips are basic and will not replace a properly designed behavior support plan, it can give you help until you get a proper plan in place.


Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers, by Alberto & Troutman

Handbook of Applied Behavior Analysis, edited by Fisher, Piazza, & Roane

Behavior Analyst Certification Board

Categories Professional PracticesTags , , , , ,

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