The natural science behind applied behaviour analysis

While most likely best-known among the public as a treatment for autism, the field of behaviour analysis has far-reaching beneficial applications. Unfortunately, however, it’s often portrayed in the media in a negative light, focusing on inaccurate stereotypes regarding punishment and control.

So, what exactly does it involve?

Behaviour analysis is a natural science approach to understanding behaviour, learning, language and cognition. As a science, it’s conceptually similar to the disciplines of psychology, biology, chemistry and medical science.

It’s comprised of four branches that together form the foundation for research and clinical practice. The first is radical behaviourism, or the philosophy of the science. This attempts to understand all human behaviour, including thoughts, feelings, emotions, cognition and complex language, in terms of person-centred historical variables (i.e., learning) and biological endowment.

The second branch is the experimental analysis of behaviour, a natural science approach to the study of basic behavioural processes.

The third branch is applied behaviour analysis, in which basic behavioural processes derived from the experimental analysis are applied to improve socially significant behaviour in real-world settings. The scientific method is used to show that behaviour change and learning is due to the careful and specific implementation of the intervention or teaching strategy, rather than an uncontrolled variable.

The fourth branch, the professional practice of applied behaviour analysis, involves the delivery of applied behaviour analytic interventions in a range of real-world settings.

Seven characteristics

Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is comprised of seven defining characteristics:

  • Applied: ABA studies and teaches behaviours that are important and meaningful (socially significant) to consumers and to society.
  • Behavioural: ABA uses precise measurement of the actual behaviour in need of improvement, and documents behaviour change using objective data recording methods.
  • Analytic: Research in ABA uses the scientific method to demonstrate that behaviour change is in fact produced by specific teaching method or intervention strategy.
  • Technological: A clear written description of the teaching or intervention procedures is provided so the procedures can be understood and replicated.
  • Conceptually systematic: Behaviour change interventions and strategies are linked to scientifically supported basic principles.
  • Effective: Behaviour change interventions and strategies are shown to change behaviour in ways that are practical and meaningful for the individual.
  • Generality: Behaviour change lasts over time and appears in new contexts, or the effects of behaviour change interventions and strategies spreads to other behaviours.

ABA is a comprehensive framework for both discovering and understanding the environmental variables that influence socially significant behaviours, and developing an effective technology for helping people overcome problems and become more independent, productive and happy members of society.

Empirical research in ABA is published in many peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, Behavior Analysis in Practice and the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.

It’s important to note that ABA isn’t a single type of intervention for a specific population (for example, autism). Rather, it’s a branch of science concerned with the application of basic principles of behaviour and learning to solve socially important problems and teach functional life skills.

Interventions have been used with diverse populations, including those with autism and related conditions, developmental and intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, learning difficulties or differences, challenging behaviour, psychiatric disorders, acquired brain injury, and dementia. They’ve also been used with animals – including dogs, horses and marine mammals – to teach skills and address challenging behaviours.

With typically developing children, interventions have addressed issues such as food selectivity, sleeping problems, toilet training, and attention and behaviour problems, and have been used with adults to help with weight loss, to stop smoking, and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

At a systems level, they’ve improved the outcomes of staff training programs, job safety, and employee productivity and satisfaction, and they’ve been used to address societal issues such as resource consumption and environmental sustainability.

Qualified practitioners key

Although behaviour analytic interventions have proven effective in helping those with diverse needs, it’s important that the professionals designing and overseeing the delivery of interventions are working within the scope of their training and competence.

In working with a specific population, they should receive academic training related to working with that population, and complete a period of supervised work under an experienced professional in the area of service delivery.

It’s important to note that ABA isn’t a single type of intervention for a specific population (for example, autism). Rather, it’s a branch of science concerned with the application of basic principles of behaviour and learning to solve socially important problems and teach functional life skills.

Basic competencies in ABA and the training required to develop them have been well-defined, and they’re encompassed in the requirements of the Behaviour Analyst Certification Board (BACB).

These specify that ABA practitioners (Board-Certified Behaviour Analysts) must be able to conduct objective assessments to identify the environmental variables influencing behaviour; to understand the context of the behaviour and the value of behaviour change; to use the principles and procedures of behavior analysis so that the individual’s health, independence and quality of life are improved; and to engage in consistent, ongoing, objective assessment and data analysis to inform clinical decision-making (BACB, 2014).

Dr Erin Leif is course coordinator for Monash University’s Master of Education in Applied Behaviour Analysis, the first program of ABA study in in Australia to be verified by the BACB.



Erin Leif

Erin is an experienced Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA-D) who has been working with children, teens, and adults with autism and related conditions since 2003. She currently specialises in the design and delivery of early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI), and in functional assessment and treatment of problem behaviour. Erin works closely with support teams and families to ensure that interventions are effective and practical, and to train team members in intervention implementation. Erin also provides training to parents, teachers, and allied health professionals in the principles and practical application of behaviour analysis. Her clinical practice is strongly influenced by current research findings in autism treatment and applied behaviour analysis. Her research interests include functional assessment and treatment of problem behaviour, generalisation of treatment effects, and staff training.