Applied Behavior Analysis and Behavior Theory Explained

Published June 17, 2022
a teacher and group of students in a classroom demonstrating and learning about bells

By Sarah DiGioia, BCBA, LBA, Director of Clinical Services 


The term Applied Behavior Analysis refers to the discipline devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 1987).  ABA is not strictly a therapy for children with autism, a bunch of people in lab coats, or a pigeon hitting a lever repeatedly for food.  ABA theory is used in classrooms, to train military personnel, to help people lose weight, to increase worker productivity in the corporate world, and many other capacities. In order to be considered a component of ABA, an intervention must meet the following criteria:

  1. Applied- The intervention must have social significance to the subject. For example, training a child to use a communication board to request a snack.
  2. Behavioral- Behavior is measured precisely and objectively. Behaviorists focus on altering observable behavior, rather than the thoughts and feelings of the individual. 
  3. Analytic- There must be a functional relationship between the manipulation of events and the behavior of interest. For example, data consistently proves that when a student walks down the hall with a heavy backpack, he has a lower frequency of dropping to the floor. 

A Brief History

The philosophical and theoretical foundations of behaviorism were first described by J.B. Watson in the early 1900’s. By the late 1930’s, a man by the name of B.F. Skinner introduced the idea of the experimental analysis of behavior through his publication, The Behavior of Organisms. The book introduced 2 major descriptions of behavior. First, is the term respondent behavior. This refers to behaviors that are involuntary reflexes such as blinking, knee jerks, and goose bumps that occur after the onset of a stimulus. For example, a person shines a flashlight into your eye, you squint. The second type of behavior is what he described as operant behavior. This is behavior influenced by a stimulus that occurs directly after the behavior occurs. For example,  a dog barks at the door and his owner immediately opens the door to let him out. In the future, the dog continues to bark at the door when he needs to go out.  Through the 1950’s Skinner conducted thousands of experiments discovering and verifying the basic principles of operant behavior and how events in a person’s environment can manipulate and change a person’s behavior.  Behavior analysis has greatly evolved over the last century, however the theoretical underpinnings are still the basis for the practice today. For more information on Skinner, and behaviorism, visit https://www.bfskinner.org/

Principles and Procedures

A principle of behavior describes a basic functional relationship between behavior and its controlling variables. There are 4 basic operations which effect and control behavior:

    1. Positive reinforcement– Something is added or presented and as a result the behavior increases. For example, a waitress is very friendly towards a new customer and he gives her a large tip. The next time the customer comes into the restaurant, she is even friendlier. 
    2. Negative reinforcement– Something is removed and as a result the behavior increases. A great example of this is the old annoying alarm that sounds in your car to remind you to buckle your seatbelt (sorry if I’m aging myself here!)
    3. Positive (also called “Type 1”) Punishment- Something is added or presented and as a result, the behavior decreases. For example, a young child steals a cookie from his mother’s plate and she smacks his hand. In the future, the child does not steal cookies from his mother’s plate. 
  • Negative (also called “Type 2”) Punishment- Something is removed and as a result, the behavior decreases. For example, a woman receives numerous speeding tickets, yet she continues to speed. Eventually she loses her driver’s license and has to ride the bus to work for a month. In the future, she stops speeding. 

A behavior change procedure is one that follows the basic principles of behavior. Behavior change procedures, simple or complex, are all based on the 4 basic operations above. 

The Three-Term Contingency

Operant behavior, or behavior influenced by a stimulus, is defined by what behavior analysts refer to as the “Three Term Contingency” or A-B-C:

A= Antecedent Stimulus- The state or condition of the environment.

B= Behavior- The interaction with the environment.

C= Consequence- An environmental change that immediately follows the behavior. 

Take the following example:

  1. A bowl of grapes is placed in front of Sally.
  2. Sally says “I want grapes please.”
  3. Sally is handed a grape. 

All behavioral procedures involve manipulation of one or more components of the three term contingency. If you are trying to figure out why your child  is behaving the way they do (or why your spouse neglected to put out the trash again), the answer lies somewhere within the three-term contingency! 

Translating Theory into Practice-Using ABA Strategies in Everyday Life

Many people have the misconception that ABA utilizes sterile, rigid, and harsh methods. Unfortunately over its lifetime, some followers of ABA theory have used the principles to control, manipulate, and coerce individuals. In today’s society these methods are not accepted and are shunned within the ABA profession. It is true that traditional ABA teaching strategies view all behaviors as a series of discrete skills, breaking down those skills into simple, manageable steps. Traditional ABA strategies are ones that are highly structured and require continuous data collection, however this does not mean that teaching has to be sterile and “lackluster”. Over the years, ABA teaching strategies have evolved into more contemporary approaches, focusing on more natural interactions in more natural environments. 

To create a learning environment where ABA approaches merge smoothly with natural teaching opportunities, the following should be occurring:

  • Break down skills and teach in small, successive steps, rewarding often, utilizing natural contingencies whenever possible.
  • Teach discrimination through variance of materials, people, and locations.
  • Perform preference assessments often. Preference assessments allow for a variety of stimuli to be “road tested” and analyzed to determine what items or activities are the most effective in motivating  individuals. This can be done through a formal process or simply observing the child during naturally occurring activities. 
  • Learn, practice and use basic behavioral terms such as task analysis, shaping, prompting, chaining, and differential reinforcement.


For more information and resources on Applied Behavior Analysis and effective teaching strategies, see the following resources. 


Cooper J.O, Heron T.E, Heward W.L. Applied behavior analysis. New York: Macmillan; 1987.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century.


Hear from EBCS

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and resources from EBCS by subscribing to our monthly newsletter.


1949 Thomson Drive, Lynchburg, VA 24501

(434) 610-7087

Mon – Fri: 9am – 5pm
Sat – Sun: Closed