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Using Applied Behavioral Analysis in the Classroom

By Nick Murja
 | Aug 10, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-87698864_x300Simon will always share a special place in my heart. He was absent the entire first month of my first year of teaching because of an infection. The remainder of the year was spent flirting, thinking about his suave attire, and anything that was not work. My second year, Simon was in my remedial reading and writing class. That year, I learned Simon had to choose between taking care of his family and going to school. He was a veteran of “the hard knock life” and the result was an education full of holes.

My classes almost always start with reading; it’s predictable and sets a reflective tone I want to cultivate. Simon anticipated this time and escaped it with Houdini-like efficiency—he was diagnosed with ADHD. After observing Simon’s behavior, I determined he had two significant barriers to reading. First, he didn’t read well and no one wants to put their heart into unsuccessful activities he or she doesn’t enjoy. Second, exerting the energy necessary was more than he was willing to expend. The result was the need to escape each time the class was to read.

In my experience, students who don’t like reading do one of three things: (1) continually dispel every book as awful, (2) escape situations where it is required (can be texting or asking to do a different activity), or (3) avoid the requirement by ditching class.

The ABA way

I was exposed to Applied Behavioral Analysis as therapy for my daughter’s Aspergers and ADHD traits. What seemed like a miracle at the time was backed by decades of science and endorsed by every major medical group in the United States. In 1968 Baer, Wolf, and Risely described ABA as the process of applying behavioral principles to improve specific behaviors while simultaneously evaluating the changes and whether they can be attributed to the process. As a parent, my view was of a lot of charts, observations, and incredible change in my daughter’s behavior.

The process

With younger children, caregivers are natural behaviorists. If a baby cries, we go through a list: Does the baby want to avoid or gain something? Does the baby want attention or is there too much stimulus (noise)? Once children can talk, caregivers begin to focus on the physical characteristics of the behavior. “Stop crying!”, “Don’t hit!”, “Sit down!” Teachers must realize that behavior only continues if it is reinforced and reinforcement is often covert. If a child stands at an inappropriate time in need of attention only to be corrected by a stern “sit down,” the child has been reinforced and will likely repeat the behavior. ABA focuses on the five functions of behavior: to gain attention, to gain a tangible, to gain or escape sensory stimulation, to escape attention or a task, to avoid attention or a task. The first step to changing behavior begins with identifying the function.  

The next step is reinforcement. For anyone to choose an alternative behavior over what they are prone to do, there must be significant incentive. I use a worksheet with a variety of incentives including food, phone use, and iPads. Students prioritize the incentives and we develop systems, like tokens, to reinforce the correct behavior. It’s important to realize that students often don’t know how they are supposed to act, so instruction on things like respect or restraint is necessary. The last step is the application and analysis. I use a chart to document the increase or decrease of the problem behavior. Always begin with easy goals and increase; students have to feel successful so the process isn’t seen as a punishment. Normally the behavior gets worse before it gets better, but if the behavior continues, either the function is incorrectly hypothesized or the incentive isn’t strong enough.    


I determined Simon wanted to avoid reading because he considered himself a poor reader. This will not change overnight, which means Simon must do a lot of reading in the meantime. I first set a goal, “Simon will begin reading within five seconds of being assigned” and then set up an achievable goal to begin, “Simon will check his texts and then begin reading.” Essentially, Simon avoided reading out of self-preservation; he didn’t want to feel stupid. So I reflected on what I knew about him and came up with a significant incentive.

We met at lunch one afternoon and discussed his behavior. I told him what I expected and offered him the chance to stay in my room to “hang out” as long as he met the expectation. I then explained how I would prompt him physically and verbally and then gesture if he was having trouble. Simon was on board and met the expectation quickly. Eventually, I removed the incentive until the adverse behavior was extinct. Several times throughout the year we reinstituted the program for his escape behaviors and others, something ABA terms “maintenance.”

I often wonder about the difference teachers and parents could make if everyone simply knew the functions of behavior. There is an enormous amount of information on YouTube, Pinterest, and various websites that offer ABA methodology for free. The changes to my classroom and family cannot be understated. Good luck!  

nick murja headshotNick Murja teaches remedial reading and writing at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, TX. He is working on a PhD in Literacy, Language, and Diversity at Texas Tech University.


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