Using ABA Therapy in School Settings

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a highly effective therapy used to modify behaviors and teach skills. In recent years, schools have increasingly offered ABA therapy to support children with autism and other neurodevelopmental needs. School districts can better support their students and special education team by hiring ABA therapists. These therapists implement individualized behavioral and academic interventions with special education students, with goals tailored to their unique needs.

What is applied behavior analysis (ABA)?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an evidence-based method of therapy used to improve behaviors and teach skills. ABA therapy is mostly used with children with autism. However, it can be implemented with people of all needs, including those with ADHD, intellectual disabilities, substance use disorders, and traumatic brain injury.

ABA therapy involves many interventions and teaching strategies. Every child’s care is individualized and may use different techniques. Some of the most common methods used include positive reinforcement, discrete trial training (DTT), natural environment teaching (NET), functional communication training (FCT), shaping, chaining, and modeling. 

How is ABA therapy used in schools?

ABA therapy is typically used in schools to support special education students’ behavioral and academic development needs. Because ABA has a strong backing of research in improving behaviors and teaching skills, many districts use ABA in the classroom and hire ABA therapists to ensure their students receive a free and appropriate public education that meets the needs of each student. There are many benefits of ABA in schools. As such, ABA therapy is used with children in schools to reduce behaviors that interfere with learning, teach communication skills, improve learner readiness skills, guide children through social situations, and teach academic skills.

Understanding the role of a school ABA therapist

ABA therapists play an essential role in school settings. First, they offer a unique view of the needs of each student by conducting ABA-based assessments. Based on assessment results, they create individualized goals and interventions to help the students function effectively in the classroom.

ABA therapists may also work with students 1:1 or in small groups. They support students through peer interactions, provide direct instruction on academic skills, support students in attendance, and implement behavior intervention plans (BIPs) to reduce challenging behaviors. In addition, ABA therapists record data on goals and behaviors to monitor each student’s progress and make informed decisions about changes to interventions and supports.

5 ABA therapy teaching strategies

ABA therapy teaching methods.

ABA therapy encompasses several therapeutic techniques. While each student’s therapy is individualized and strategies will vary, some of the common aba teaching strategies used in ABA therapy are listed below.

1. Discrete trial teaching (DTT)

What discrete trial teaching (DTT) means: A structured method for teaching new skills, which starts with a clear instruction, followed by the learner’s response, and ends with a consequence such as praise if the learner responded correctly or a correction if they responded incorrectly.

In discrete trial teaching, the therapist teaches one skill at a time. The term “discrete” indicates the learning opportunity has a clear beginning and ending point. During DTT, the therapist provides prompts to ensure the learner responds accurately. Once the learner can demonstrate the skill, the therapist focuses on a new skill.

Discrete trial teaching is commonly used in ABA therapy to teach individuals a wide range of skills across populations and settings. Research shows that DTT effectively teaches academic, cognitive, communication, social, attending, imitation, and behavioral skills (Bogin, 2008).

2. Naturalistic teaching

What naturalistic teaching means: A more flexible method for teaching new skills in a learner’s natural environment.

Naturalistic teaching promotes generalization by teaching new skills in environments that matter most to a child, such as at home, in the classroom, and in the community. Procedures built on naturalistic teaching use a learner’s natural motivation to learn skills and improve behavior. Naturalistic teaching procedures can be used for various skills, including developing vital communication skills, improving social and play skills, increasing attending and pre-academic readiness, and teaching other functional living skills.

3. Pivotal response treatment (PRT)

What pivotal response treatment means: A naturalistic approach to teaching skills that are pivotal to a student’s social, play, communication, and behavioral development.

Pivotal response treatment is a play-based mode of therapy most commonly used with children ages 2-6 that target four key areas of functioning. The areas of focus in PRT include motivation, self-initiation, self-regulation, and responding to multiple cues. With an intensive focus on these critical areas of development, children can develop the skills needed for lifelong success in the classroom and beyond.

4. Token economy

What token economy means: A system for positively reinforcing appropriate behaviors by providing tokens, which the student can later exchange for additional reinforcers.

Token economies are highly effective at improving functional behaviors and reducing behaviors that interfere with a student’s ability to learn. In a token economy, students earn tokens when they demonstrate specified target behaviors. Tokens can be anything–stars, tallies, stickers, or points. The students can cash in for a backup reinforcer when they earn a predetermined number of tokens. Backup reinforcers are items or activities that are reinforcing for the individual. For example, at school, backup reinforcers could be choosing a prize from a treasure chest or earning an extra recess.

Token economies can be beneficial for reducing harmful or interfering behaviors such as aggression, eloping from the classroom, and screaming. Token economies positively reinforce behaviors that help students learn and grow.

5. Peer-mediated interventions

What peer-mediated interventions mean: Using typically developing peers to teach students with autism and other developmental delays new skills.

In a peer-mediated intervention, neurotypical peers are systematically taught how to best engage with children with autism to improve the child’s social and communication skills. Peer-mediated interventions are more easily implemented in school settings than in-home due to the availability of similar-aged peers. Neurotypical peers are used as models for teaching skills such as initiating and reciprocating conversations, engaging in play, problem-solving, and understanding social cues. 

Why is ABA therapy important in schools?

Every student learns in different ways. ABA therapy focuses on individualized teaching to meet the unique needs of each child. ABA therapy in schools can ensure each student can achieve social, communication, and educational success. In addition, ABA therapists can help students integrate into the least restrictive environment, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Benefits of ABA therapy in school

There are many benefits of ABA therapy in schools. While the benefits to the students are of the highest importance, ABA therapy can also benefit teachers, peers, and schools as a whole.

While the list of benefits of ABA in schools is extensive, some of the greatest advantages include:

  • Increase language and communication skills. The ability to communicate with others is vital for long-term success. Providing ABA therapy in a school can help children improve their communication abilities while learning academic skills.
  • Decrease behavioral problems. ABA therapy can improve a child’s overall educational success by reducing behaviors that interfere with their learning (e.g., aggression, self-injurious behavior, and school refusal).
  • Improve attention and focus in a comfortable environment. By implementing individualized support, ABA therapy can help children improve their attention and focus, resulting in optimal academic outcomes.
  • Gain social skills. By teaching social skills such as active listening, understanding others’ emotions, and problem-solving, ABA therapy can help children gain the social skills needed to develop positive relationships with others.
  • Offer support to teachers. ABA therapy provided in schools can help busy educators better manage the needs of each student with the support of ABA therapists.

Find your next ABA therapy position with Sunbelt

The benefits of ABA therapy offered in schools cannot be overstated. Schools are responsible for providing an individualized education to students with disabilities to ensure each child’s needs are met. Providing ABA therapy in schools is one way to make that happen. School districts and educators can pave the way for a lifetime of success by embracing ABA therapy in schools.

You may be wondering how to become a school-based therapist such as an ABA or BCBA. Soliant is here to guide you – every step of the way. To make a difference in the lives of children in your area, consider a job as a school-based ABA therapist or BCBA!

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