ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) and Me

Benjie+Martires+and+therapist+Serina+Ramirez+take+a+break+from+their+enjoyable+session.

Photo courtesy of Serina Ramirez.

Benjie Martires and therapist Serina Ramirez take a break from their enjoyable session.

By Christopher Martires, Rancho Dominguez Preparatory School

As the older sibling to a brother with mild-to-severe Down Syndrome, I’ve come to be acquainted with the techniques that are used to help teach the cognitively disabled. Despite my basic knowledge on how the various specialized therapy helps my little brother, it wasn’t until recently that I started to take a more active role in his therapy sessions and learn what applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is and how it is used in maximizing a child’s learning capabilities. 

Behavioral therapist Serina Ramirez, who works at Behavior and Education, assists with developing special needs kids positive behavioural skills to help in their learning process. 

“ABA–Applied Behavior Analysis–is a way of using operant conditioning to change behaviors. It is the most widely used and most successful when working with children with autism in assisting with growth, social and personal skills.  With that said it can be applied to everyone. Parents may unknowingly use ABA methods when teaching children certain lessons, such as picking up after themselves,” said Ramirez.

Ramirez originally was a case manager (a consultant that gives advice to people who are in difficult situations and provide assistance) that wanted to switch jobs due to the monotony of her work and become more hands-on in order to help people grow as individuals. She then stumbled into behavioral therapy two years ago and has been enjoying it ever since.

“[What] I love most [about working in my field is] the help I can provide to the kiddos and the families. With kids you see a much bigger and faster change in them most times and it’s so rewarding to be able to see the change you are trying to make,” she said.

ABA works under the principle of positive reinforcement; when a behavior is followed up with reward or of similar value, that same behavior will be most likely repeated. Gradually, it encourages positive behavior changes that will benefit the child in the long run. These changes can include increased communication skills, improved attention spans and memory, and a decrease in problematic behaviors. One of the biggest advantages to ABA is how much it can be tailored and adapted to any children to fit their style of learning. This allows for a wide array of teaching techniques that can be used when it seems like doing one way of learning isn’t working out for the child.

“ABA is more of an umbrella term; there are so many methods, programs and ways to run ABA.  In training we learn the basis and the guidelines and rules and then as the therapist we can really mold it to our own.  If ABA is not working, changing the program to break it into easier steps would be the first step when trying to figure out why something isn’t working. For example, if we are teaching a kiddo how to play we would first start with imitation- the kiddo and therapist would have the same car (it can be anything) and the therapist would imitate a movement like rolling across the table, then the kiddo has to copy.  Now say this was not successful, the kiddo did not roll the car across the table, we would make it into simpler steps.  The therapist would first imitate a easier movement like picking the car up, the kiddo then imitates picking the car up, and then it will expand to the therapist showing the car jumping the kiddo imitates the care jumping, and so forth; until the kiddo is able to move the car across the table. Once the movements are down chaining can happen and this is connecting 2 and more movements together like rolling the car across the table and jumping it over a block, and then the kiddo is essentially playing,” Ramirez clarified. 

One of the most important things Ramirez noted is how vital consistency is when working with a child. It is imperative to always remind yourself that they are still kids and they will sometimes get lost in their learning.

“ABA is great! but it requires consistency from all members of the support system. Meaning, I can come every day into a home and work with a kiddo and progress will happen at such a slow pace because they are confused (if only one person is setting clear expectations). consistency is hard and that’s why we will start with programs with therapist and kiddo and get them successful 100% of the time before introducing parent training (where parent’s do what the therapist does) this is expected to continue even when we are not in the home (so all other times aside from session) so that consistency is there and the child has a clear vision of the expectation that parents are trying to set for them,” said Ramirez.

When improving a child’s behavior, one must become familiarized with the three-step process Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence (ABC). The process helps with learning and understanding behavior, and by utilizing the three steps it can be used to teach kids a more appropriate behavior in the long run. The first step, Antecedent, is what happens before the target behavior you are locating occurs. This can be as simple as a verbal command or physical like playing with a toy. The second step, Behavior, is how the child responds or doesn’t respond to the antecedent. Like the first step, this can be verbally or physically communicated. Lastly, the third step Consequence is the direct response after the behavior. Depending on the second step, it can include positive reinforcement of the preferred behavior or no response from a negative behavior. This allows behavioral therapists to see whether or not a behavior needs to be changed and what they can do to change the outcome into the desired behavior.

“There are a lot of times things get frustrating for the kiddos, and I feel bad for them because they try their best and when things are so hard and you try and can’t do something I would be frustrated also. That is where a lot of behaviors occur, when kids are frustrated and don’t know how to express that,” said Ramirez.

Identifying and helping children express what their issues are is crucial in teaching these kids skills they can use in their daily life. It’s why it is essential that, as Ramirez previously stated, everyone makes consistent effort to support the child in learning positive habits. Plans are always being prepared ahead of time and the therapists are always collecting data from their sessions to ensure that the goals for the child are met and not fall back into their behavioral problems.

“I think once you work with a certain kiddo for a long time you can read them, know what makes them mad, what gets them to start escalating into a behavior. I like to dance around that imaginary line and not avoid making them mad; it’s all about building tolerance to things we don’t like, but I do not want to push the kiddo into a tantrum either.  So, I will do my best to read the child and if I see that it is becoming too much then I back down and make the task easier and then transition into a break.  Sometimes tantrums are not avoidable and in that case I wait them out.  It is important to know what caused the behavior–if it is attention seeking, is it lack of communication–so that we can respond accordingly. I may say ‘when you’re ready come sit down’ and then pay no more attention to the kiddo for a couple minutes then say something like ‘when your ready, we can start earning tokens’ (tokens=break and all kids with experience in token boards know that a break will come from this if all are earned).  We don’t want to give attention to the tantrum because we want the child to connect their behaviors with certain outcomes; tantrums equals no fun rewards [and] hard work equals fun breaks. After the tantrum is over, before any break can be given the kiddo must do some work as small as it is [like] write a letter, write a name, touch his head when asked so that work is correlated with breaks. This will eventually lessen tantrums over time [which] is the goal,” said Ramirez.

ABA, while used to help with children that have behavioral problems, it is not exclusively just for that. ABA has practical use in almost all situations! For example, in an article published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2001, we see the use of ABA in trying to teach horses to enter horse trailers without causing any injuries. Just like with children, the study used positive reinforcement in the teaching process for the horses and was shown to be successful. As well, ABA is always being used–whether teachers are aware of it or not–in education to help students to promote repeated positive behavior in the classroom. A great example of this is The Good Behavior Game, which, as the title implies, rewards students for their good behavior! 

“I think [ABA] it is [the best form of teaching kids]. Aside from it being the most used form of therapy for children with autism, it helps everyone like I was saying.  I think it is horrible that kids with certain special needs are not approved for ABA therapy (it is not seen as a need). I have seen it work with all the kiddos that I work with, [and] if anything else, [it] provides great parenting tips that can be looked at for everyday life.  For children most times the issue (for any kid) is they are confused so they act out, they are mad so they cry, or they don’t want to do something so they throw a fit. If parents give into these behaviors they are showing the child that these behaviors get them the things they want or escape from the things they want to not do.  With ABA we are shaping behaviors–how–with consistency and the way we react to the kiddo is how they will remember for the next time (if you throw a ball and hit someone and everyone laughs, you might do it again for more laughs. If you throw a ball and hit someone and are reprimanded for this then chances are you aren’t going to do it again-at least on purpose). It is the same for all things the kiddos do, we want to show praise and positivity when the good happens and either ignore or not enthusiastically say ‘nope try again’; tone of voice is huge,” concluded  Ramirez. 

Working with Ramirez and with other behavioral therapists during this quarantine has opened my eyes on how impactful ABA is in helping virtually anybody’s growth. Without their guidance, I wouldn’t be able to effectively take care of my little brother and for that I truly am grateful for their constant support in nurturing my little brother’s development as a person. Special education tends to be overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but without that help, my little brother would still be struggling in understanding the fundamentals that makes a well-mannered person. I give all my gratitude to Ramirez and the people at Behavior and Education for making me stop taking for granted the impact of their work in instilling important behavioral skills. 

This story was originally published on Wolfpack on April 19, 2021.