Special Education Services

The Role of Applied Behavior Analysis in Special Education

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) helps children learn to develop positive and productive behaviors. In special education, it’s most often used for children with disabilities that affect their behavior and, as a result, their learning. Using behavioral science, helps special education teachers and psychologists understand a child’s behavior and work with them to modify it.

ABA therapy has many purposes, and not only for working with behavioral disorders. By applying different techniques, an ABA therapist can tailor the approach of this practice to your child in a way that helps them reach their educational and social goals. In special education specifically, ABA can help students interact with their peers and teachers, as well as give them the support they need to succeed academically.

In this guide, I talk about what ABA is, who it benefits, and how it’s used in special education. I also go into more detail about who practices ABA and when it’s a good idea to ask whether it’s right for your child.

What You Need to Know about Applied Behavior Analysis

  • What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?
  • Who Performs ABA?
  • Who Receives ABA and How Is It Used in Special Education?
  • Types of ABA in Special Education
  • Discrete Trial Training
  • Pivotal Response Treatment
  • Natural Environment Training
  • Outcomes of ABA in Special Education
  • How to Find Out if ABA Is Right for Your Child

What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that uses an evidence-based approach to managing behavioral disabilities and disorders. ABA works to modify a child’s behavior when that behavior becomes disruptive or harmful to the child or others around them.

Because behavioral disorders can accompany learning disabilities, ABA provides support for addressing problem behaviors. ABA aims to identify those behaviors to understand and modify them so that the child can express their needs and feelings appropriately. ABA uses many techniques and strategies to address behavioral challenges and creates a plan to develop new or modified behaviors.

In special education, ABA is a tool to help students develop new behavior patterns that they can use in the classroom. It helps them develop skills that allow them to learn successfully in class and interact with their peers. As a result, it helps them meet both academic and social goals by encouraging repeated positive behavior. They also develop language and communication skills, reduce negative behaviors, and improve social skills and educational outcomes by working with a qualified ABA therapist.

Who Performs ABA?

When a child has a disability that affects their behavior, the situation may require intervention from an ABA therapist who works in special education. An ABA therapist is specially trained to understand child behavior and use targeted interventions to modify those behaviors.

An ABA therapist must have excellent communication and critical thinking skills to understand verbal and nonverbal cues from children and create an appropriate treatment plan. Because ABA therapy needs vary between students, the therapist must also be able to make a plan that accommodates the individual child’s learning style and interests to keep them engaged.

Empathy and patience also play a key role in successful ABA therapy. These qualities help therapists understand what contributes to the child’s behavior, allowing them to create a more effective plan for intervention and modification.

Typically, the person performing ABA will be a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). A BCBA has specific education, qualifications, and certifications to perform behavior-analytic services like ABA. A BCBA may offer these services as a special education teacher, school psychologist, or behavior analyst within your child’s school.

Who Receives ABA and How Is It Used in Special Education?

Students with and without learning disabilities can benefit from ABA. ABA therapists commonly work with students who need additional support due to:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Speech and language disabilities
  • Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

ABA can also be helpful with anxiety, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and any other disability that affects the child’s behavior.

In special education, the ABA therapist focuses on how that child’s behavior impacts their education. For example, a child who frequently acts out in class or whose behavior becomes disruptive in the general classroom may need the support provided by an ABA therapist.

Before they can begin therapy, the therapist will evaluate the child and consult with the child’s parents, general and special education teachers, and others involved in their education, like an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Then, they’ll work to create a behavior intervention plan (BIP) based on what approach best supports the child’s learning.

ABA therapists use the ABC method when working with students in special education:

  • Antecedent: These are the factors that contribute to the child’s behavior. What happens right before the behavior is observed?
  • Behavior: This is the child’s response or reaction to the antecedent.
  • Consequence: The consequence is the response to the child’s behavior. It can influence whether the behavior will continue in similar situations in the future.

With this approach, ABA therapists can understand why the child behaves a certain way and how to alter both their behavior and the consequence when they respond. Using positive or negative reinforcement as a reward, or to discourage a specific behavior, they work with the student to nurture more appropriate behaviors. They can then participate more actively in classroom activities, extracurriculars, and socializing.

Types of ABA in Special Education

Applied behavior analysis takes many forms and isn’t limited to the classroom. When a child receives ABA therapy, they should receive consistent feedback from parents, teachers, and other professionals when it comes to their behavior.

The type of ABA a child may respond best to varies. Here are a few ways an ABA therapist might approach intervention and treatment.

Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) requires a controlled environment, like a one-on-one session in a room free of distraction. With this approach, the therapist will prompt the child to do the desired behavior, and when the child does it, the therapist will reward them.

DTT involves breaking down complex situations and behaviors into smaller and simpler ones. It also uses techniques like modeling to show the child which behaviors are most appropriate in various situations. The idea behind this method is that these smaller behaviors will build to create a new, positive behavior that the child does automatically.

DTT is the most popular form of ABA therapy. It’s also often used to help children build and improve social skills.

Pivotal Response Treatment 

Instead of breaking down a single behavior, Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) targets key developmental areas for the child as a whole. That includes the stimuli and motivation related to their behaviors as well as the behaviors themselves.

PRT allows the child more freedom to make their own choices when it comes to modifying their behavior. This method still has specific goals based on the child’s needs and behaviors. However, it incorporates their environmental and interest-based motivations. The child helps choose which motivators are used in the therapy. 

It also relies on natural reinforcement. For example, if the child asks for a toy, they receive that toy as their positive reinforcement without additional reward.

Natural Environment Training 

Natural Environment Training (NET) focuses on working in an environment the child is familiar with. Usually, therapists use games and other types of play to work on behavior modification. It can also help children adapt their new behaviors when they are also learning them in the same environment where they’re expected to implement them.

While DTT and PRT take a more structured approach, NET creates a more relaxed environment. For the child, it doesn’t feel so much like they’re working on changing behavior. The therapist uses tools in their environment to help them. This evidence-based approach has led to students using their skills and new behavioral patterns more automatically outside of therapy.

Outcomes of ABA in Special Education

No matter the approach, the goal of ABA is to help the child live as independently as possible. That means making their own decisions and being responsible for their behavior and participating in their learning, and meeting curriculum and social goals. In special education specifically, the role of ABA is to help children benefit as much as possible from the general classroom.

Specific outcomes of ABA in special education vary based on the individual child’s needs. In general, ABA helps them:

  • Communicate effectively
  • Ask questions and make requests positively
  • Increase focus
  • Stop harmful behaviors
  • Reduce disruptive behaviors in class
  • Improve social behavior

ABA does not try to change the child’s personality or thought process. Instead, it encourages them to use their strengths to create more independence in school and beyond.

How to Find Out if ABA Is Right for Your Child

If you think your child could benefit from ABA, contact your child’s teacher or school psychologist. If your child has an IEP, you might consider contacting the IEP coordinator to set up an IEP team meeting and talk about options for behavioral therapy for your child. Even if your child doesn’t have a diagnosed learning disability, they may still benefit from ABA if they have disruptive behaviors in school.

Together with your child’s school, you can decide whether ABA is the right approach for your child.


Applied behavior analysis can help students modify their behavior and promote more positive responses in school. As a result, they have more success in meeting their academic and social goals. ABA offers students the support they need to participate more independently in school with better focus and communication. They can then carry those skills with them beyond the classroom.

If you have questions about the role of ABA in special education, leave a comment below! You can also send me an email directly. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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