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ABA Language


Whether you are the loved one of someone who receives behavior analytic services or just someone who is interested in applied behavior analysis (ABA), one aspect of ABA that is difficult to understand is the vocabulary used. Board certified behavior analysts (BCBA) and behavior therapists are accustomed to speaking, and are taught, to speak in a manner that is understood by others in the field. While this is perfectly acceptable in a professional and academic environment, this can be difficult for caregivers who have just entered the world of ABA. As a graduate student, I can attest to the fact that I find translating my ABA vocabulary into typical terms that all can understand difficult, more so because I also speak Spanish; so there is a two-step translation process that is happening and I often get stuck. Perhaps a quick tutorial on many terms used in ABA can be of use to those who have possibly felt lost in interactions with therapists or certified behavior analysts.

  • Consequences: This is any event that occurs right after a behavior. Consequences increase or decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future.

  • Antecedents: This is any event that occurs just prior to a behavior, that motivates somebody to act or serves as a signal whether the behavior will receive reinforcement or not.

  • Behavior: Any observable action that an individual is doing (e.g. crying, aggression, running away, rambling, etc.).

  • Reinforcement (pos/neg): A consequence that increases the likelihood that a particular behavior will occur again. There is both positive and negative reinforcement, which simply means that there is some variable added (positive) or some variable is removed (negative). For example, a child who removes their hand from a hot stove will most likely behave in the same way in the future in order to remove such a pain again (negative reinforcement). The same child can ask for burn cream to soothe pain from an adult and will likely ask in the future should this happen again (positive reinforcement).

  • Punishment (pos/neg): A consequence that decreases the likelihood that a particular behavior will occur again in the future. This event can also be positive (adding something) or negative (removal of something). The same child may touch the hot stove and in addition be reprimanded (positive punishment) or the child may have a preferred toy removed for disobeying the caregiver for being in the kitchen (negative punishment).

  • Discrimination: Behaving differently in the presence of one antecedent stimulus than others.

  • Pairing: A neutral event/object repeatedly presented at the same time as a preferred event/object soon becomes a reinforcer or punisher to an individual.

  • Extinction: The elimination of a behavior that is observed when reinforcement is no longer provided when the behavior occurs.

  • Blocking: Stopping a behavior from occurring. Oftentimes this is done when a person is physically trying to hurt themselves or others.

  • Prompt: Any clue, hint, or support to help the client respond or complete a task.

While these terms do not cover all of those used in the field of ABA it is my hope that it will provide further insight or questions regarding what it is, we as therapists are trying to convey.


Thank you for reading!

Brittany Reney Macias Registered Behavior Technician, B.A.

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