Commonly Used Language Related To

ABA Therapy

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A description of a RESPONSE in terms of the Antecedent (A), Behavior (B), and Consequence (C).

Antecedent: The stimulus that immediately comes before the behavior

Behavior: A description of the response in terms of its topography (what the behavior looks like)

Consequence: The immediate outcome of the behavior


An acronym that is used to refer to the field of APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS, the application of the science of learning to socially significant human behavior.


Acronym for the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills, a language assessment tool in common usage within Applied Behavior Analytic programs. Created by James W. Partington and Mark L. Sundberg.


The time during which an individual is learning a new behavior. Data collected on the rate (speed) and accuracy of the skill being acquired informs the interventionist working with an individual as to whether the teaching procedures being used need to be adjusted.

Activities of Daily Living (ADL)

Includes many different behaviors involved in taking care of one’s self (e.g. toilet usage, washing, dressing, eating, etc.). These behaviors are also referred to as self-help skills.

Activity Schedule

Individuals are taught to follow a series of written or pictorial cues to complete a task, engaging in the behavior chain represented.

Backward chaining

A specific method of instruction where one attempts to teach a task by teaching the last step first and working through a task analysis in reverse.

  • EX:
    Putting together a new puzzle. The instructor would prompt the student to put in all of the pieces in the puzzles. They would fade the prompt on the last piece while continuing to prompt the student through the rest of the puzzle. Once the student puts the last piece in independently (no prompts), the instructor can begin to fade prompts on second to last piece.


The period of observation during which we gather data relevant to the behavior of interest before we initiate an intervention.


This term refers to some action made by an individual. Behavior is the movement of a person in the environment. See the dead man’s (or woman’s) test.

Behavior chain

Multiple steps linked together to make up a given behavior or activity. Completion of one step leads to the next step until the entire task is completed.

Behavior Treatment Plan

A written description outlining how relevant individuals should respond in order to decrease inappropriate behavior and increase appropriate behavior.


The philosophy of the science of behavior. It takes several forms, but always emphasizes that behavior is the proper subject matter of psychology and should be studied using an objective, scientific, and experimental methodology.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst

This is a person who has satisfied all the requirements to acquire the “B.C.B.A.” and can therefore call him/ herself a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Requirements include completing a prerequisite number of hours of University-level course work in the science of behavior, completing a period of internship under the supervision of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and passing the required written examination. To maintain certification once it is achieved, there are various continuing education requirements. There are currently two levels of certification, the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (B.C.B.A.) and the Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst (B.C.A.B.A.). The exact requirements and most current information regarding how to become or locate a Board Certified Behavior Analyst are available through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board web site, at

Case Study

A description of the background of a particular individual, an educational program, or a behavior program usually used to assist in treatment decisions.

Conditioned Reinforcer

A reinforcer that was previously neutral, but has become a reinforcer. Money becomes a conditioned reinforcer by being paired with the items it purchases. Interventionists may become conditioned reinforcers for their student’s behavior, through being paired with other reinforcers (e.g. praise, tokens, favored activities, etc.).


The specific immediate result of a given behavior. The consequence may or may not alter how often the behavior occurs in the future.


Quantitative information gathered to guide the decision-making progress.

Data-Based Decision Making

A set of rules based on relevant data that allow BCBAs to make decisions about when to change programs or methods.

Dead Man’s (Person’s) Test

A guiding principle in the definition of behavior. It basically states that anything a dead person can do is not behavior.


To increase the potency of a reinforcer by not delivering it to the individual for a time. For example, to make an edible particularly reinforcing, one might not deliver that edible directly following a meal when the child is full and food may not be a reinforcer. If an individual has non-restricted access to a particular reinforcer, it is unlikely to be particularly potent when offered as a reinforcer. Contrast with satiation.

Direct Instruction

A form of teaching that is heavily based upon behavioral principles. Students are taught in groups that are made up of students at roughly the same academic level, there is scripted and fast-paced presentation of materials, students respond as a group as well as individually, and there is a very high degree of student-instructor interaction with error correction and positive reinforcement for correct responding. There is an emphasis on very well designed and researched modules that students must master before moving on to the next level (see work by Engleman and Carnine).

Discrete Trial Teaching

Discrete trial teaching uses the three-term contingency (A-B-C) relationship to teach various skills. Each “trial” is a separate attempt to teach a new behavior or reinforce a previously learned behavior.


The repeating of previously heard utterances.

Edible Reinforcers

Food items that may be used as reinforcers. One common myth surrounding ABA is that edibles are the predominant reinforcers used in all treatment procedures with children. In actuality, when edibles are used, they are always paired with other more natural reinforcers such as verbal praise, attention, and tokens, and are faded as the student acquires other reinforcers.

Error Correction

Set procedures that are used in the event that the learner responds incorrectly or is non-responsive. For example, in one error correction procedure, the SD is repeated, followed by a zero second prompt for the child to respond correctly and is followed by a transfer trial.

Errorless Learning

In errorless learning, prompting and prompt fading are utilized to reduce and or eliminate the likelihood of learner errors. If possible, the student is prevented from making the incorrect response in the first place through careful prompting. This increases the probability that the student will have more opportunities to make a correct response and receive reinforcement.


To cease reinforcing a previously reinforced behavior to decrease the behavior’s frequency.

Extinction Burst

Refers to the tendency for behavior “to get worse before it gets better”. When a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced, the behavior will temporarily increase in frequency, magnitude, and variability.


This term refers to gradually removing any prompts one has introduced into a teaching situation.


A measure of the ability of an individual to complete a given number of responses accurately within a given period of time. High rates of fluency are associated with effortless and proficient performance.

Forward Chaining

A type of chaining procedure in which the first step in a task analysis is taught first, then the second step, then the third step, through to the final step. In other words, each step is taught one at a time, from first to last until the full behavior chain is emitted.


Refers to the number of target responses counted. For example, “the student made seven initiations to his peers.”

Functional Analysis

A process in which the events in the environment that are maintaining a particular response are identified. Functional analysis helps to answer questions such as “why does that behavior occur?” or “under what conditions is that behavior more likely?”


Speaking broadly, generalization refers to variation in either response or setting. We strive to generalize across time, setting, people, and instructional materials.


The representation of data on a grid. When behaviors are represented on a graph, they allow visual analysis. In other words, the person viewing the graph can easily make a judgment regarding changes in a pattern of behavior over time. Graphs make for easy summarization of trend, level, and variability in behavior. Graphs are used to assess progress in learning and to make teaching and/or treatment decisions.


To duplicate someone else’s behavior. Most often discussed in ABA programming in terms of motor (a.k.a. nonverbal) imitation of actions, or verbal (a.k.a. vocal) imitation of speech sounds.

Incidental Teaching

Incidental teaching refers to teaching that “takes advantage” of naturally occurring opportunities to teach, often with student-initiated activities.


Inclusion refers to the general philosophy of education which states that, to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with typically developing peers; unless the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services, cannot be achieved satisfactorily.


A verbal response that is controlled by the verbal responses of others. Common names for intraverbal responses may include answering questions, word-associations, fill-ins, conversational responses, etc.


A person who responds to verbal behavior

Listener Response

behavior of a person responding to another person’s verbal behavior. Listener responses are acquired through experience and are often highly specified. Listener responses are often called “receptive language.”


Receptive categorization according to the Function, Feature, or Class of an object.


Function: “What do you eat with?” Child hands you a spoon.

Feature: “Which one is round?” Child touches the picture of a ball.

Class: “Which one is a toy?” Child gives you the yoyo on the table.


Verbal behavior (could be talking, signing, gesturing, etc.) that occurs when there is motivation for something and the reinforcer for the verbal behavior is the specific reinforcer. For example, asking for “water” (verbal behavior) when one is thirsty (motivation for water) and receiving water (reinforcer/consequence). Common terms for mands might include ask, demand, request, command, question, etc.

Matching to Sample

In the presence of one stimulus, the student selects another stimulus that shares some or all characteristics. Matching can occur based on a variety of similar characteristics (matching things that look alike, that are associated by their function, that are associated by belonging to the same category, etc.).

Most-to-least prompting

This term refers to a prompting and prompt fading strategy where one begins prompting at a level guaranteed to get the response to occur. You would then fade the intensity of the prompt over time to avoid prompt dependency.

Motivating Operation

Sometimes abbreviated as MO, this term refers to a change in the environment that affects the value of other stimuli to serve as reinforcers and antecedent stimuli. In other words, something in the environment temporarily alters the value of something else, and therefore will result in the individual engaging in behaviors to get what is valuable at that particular time. For example, not drinking water for a long period of time (being thirsty) is a motivating operation because it temporarily increases the value of water and therefore will make the person engage in behaviors to get water such as opening the refrigerator, asking for water, walking to a water fountain, etc.

Natural Environment Teaching

Sometimes abbreviated as NET, this term refers to a teaching approach where the child’s current activities and interests determine teaching strategies.

Negative Reinforcement

Describes a relationship between events in which the rate of a behavior’s occurrence increases when some (usually aversive or unpleasant) environmental condition is removed or reduced in intensity. It leads to an increase in the future probability of a given behavior. For example, if a student tantrums after the BCBA asked him/her to perform a task, and the BCBA withdraws the request because of the tantrum. In such a case, the BCBA has accidentally negatively reinforced the tantrum and unwittingly made it more likely to happen in the future.

Positive Reinforcement

A stimulus is presented following a given target behavior, this leads to an increase in the future probability of that target behavior. As with other consequences, it is important to remember that a stimulus is only a positive reinforcer if, when presented, leads to an increase in the future probability of the behavior.

Precision Teaching

A method of instruction in which precise teaching behaviors and instructional methodologies are applied, continuously monitored, and adjusted based on student performance. The data in precision teaching programs are recorded and displayed on the standard celeration chart developed by Ogden Lindsley. The outcome of precision teaching is fluency.

Primary reinforcer

A reinforcer that is effective without any prior learning (i.e. is in-born). Also known as unlearned reinforcer or unconditioned reinforcer.

Probe (cold)

Data that is collected for a student’s first unprompted response. It is a brief assessment of learning for a specific teaching target.


Makes the desired behavior more likely. Think of prompts as hints. Whenever you use a prompt, you should be thinking about how to fade it out. This will allow the student to respond to cues in the environment on their own. In instruction, the prompt occurs as part of the antecedent condition (before the behavior occurs).


A measure of frequency across a specific period of time. For example, a child emits seven initiations per hour.


One individual attempts to interrupt a student engaging in a behavior (often an inappropriate behavior) and attempts to engage him/her in an alternate (generally more appropriate) behavior.


A consequence that increases the future probability of the behavior that immediately preceded it. The only way a reinforcer can be identified is by the effect it has on future behavior.

Reinforcer Assessment

This is a procedure to identify the stimuli and activities that a student finds reinforcing.


A reinforcer loses its effectiveness because it has been ingested in quantities that do not allow more absorption. In common terms satiation is synonymous with “being full”. Although the term is sometimes used to describe the weakening effect of time spent interacting with a conditioned reinforcer (for example, a child “getting tired of playing with a toy”). This later effect is best described as habituation.

Schedule of Reinforcement

The ratio of responses to reinforcers. Schedules of reinforcement determine how often particular responses will result in reinforcement.


This is the symbolic notation for Discriminative Stimulus. This is a stimulus that signals that a given behavior will be reinforced.

Secondary Reinforcer

A consequence that was previously neutral but has become a reinforcer through pairing with a previously established reinforcer.


Process used to create new behavior by differentially reinforcing successive approximations to a desired behavior (the target response).

Social reinforcers

Reinforcers that consist of interactions with other individuals, i.e. high five, thumbs up, wink.


The symbolic notation for positive reinforcement.


Verbal behavior where a non-verbal stimulus evokes a verbal response. In other words, one sees, hears, smells, tastes, or feels something that evokes a verbal response. Common terms for a tact are labeling or naming.

Target Behavior

A response that is selected to be changed in some manner as part of a teaching program. It is the behavior we expect to be demonstrated as a result of our teaching. The target can be chosen to be increased or decreased.

Task Analysis

Used most often in discussions of chaining, this is a written list of all steps that must be accomplished to perform a particular behavior. Depending on the individual, one skill could take 10 steps or 100 steps.

Time-out from Positive Reinforcement

Often called “time out” for short, this term refers to a collection of very often-misused techniques. The general idea of time out is that a given reinforcer is removed for a short period of time, contingent upon some inappropriate behavior being emitted by an individual. While this can take the form of an individual having to go to a different setting (e.g., the common “time out chair”), time out need not take this form, and there are good reasons to avoid this use (e.g., accidentally reinforcing with attention, or accidentally reinforcing avoidance behavior). Time out can be accomplished within the given setting (e.g., a T.V. set is turned off for ten seconds following inappropriate hand flapping while watching).


What a behavior looks like. A description of the physical form of the behavior.

Transfer Trial

An unprompted trial that follows a prompted trial. To get a transfer trial, prompts are faded to lead to an independent response.

Variable Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement (VR)

An intermittent schedule of reinforcement where reinforcement becomes available after an average number of responses. In other words the number of responses required prior to reinforcement varies but, on average, occurs at a similar frequency (for example, VR 10 requires an average of 10 responses for reinforcement). This is among the most powerful schedules of reinforcement for encouraging rapid responding and providing resistance to extinction.

Verbal Behavior (1)

A book written by B.F. Skinner that describes a behavioral approach to language. It emphasizes the idea that communication is a behavior that follows the same laws and principles as other forms of behavior.

Verbal Behavior (2)

Behavior that is effective only through the mediation of another person (listener) who has been specifically trained to reinforce the behavior. It encompasses terms such as language, speech, talking, comprehension, memory, etc. It can involve speaking but also includes sign language, writing, picture communication systems, Braille, and so forth.

Visual Prompt

A cue that is meant to be seen and that has behavior-altering effects. This may take the form, for example, of a culturally accepted symbol such as a “stop sign,” or may take the form of something designed for an individual teaching program. For example, holding up a picture of a cat when asked, “What says meow?”


Responses that involve movements of the lungs, larynx, tongue, and lips in order to produce a sound (an auditory response product). Vocal responses include talking out loud, singing, babbling, screaming, etc

Adapted from:
Newman, Bobby, Reeve, Kenneth, Reeve Sharon, Ryan, Carolyn (2003). Behavior Speaks. New York: Dave and Orca.

Alberto, Paul A. and Troutman, Anne C. (1982). Applied Behavior Analysis for BCBAs. Ohio