How Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Therapy Empowers Students With Learning Difficulties

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By Education Today

Posted on April 5, 2022


7 min read

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-To be attributed to Author: Ms. Avalanne Dsouza, School Psychologist at The Aditya Birla Integrated School (TABIS)

Have you ever sent your child to their room for a ‘time-out’? If your answer is yes, then you probably have just used an ABA technique on your child. Time-outs are designed to disengage from the current behaviour the child is trying to use to probably gain the attention of the adult. During the time-out the child is expected to calm down and use a better strategy to approach their parents if they need something. Instead of crying and shouting, they are asked to “use their words’ to communicate what they need. Any tantrum or meltdown serves as a way for the child to communicate a want or a need and when we give into that need, we continue to reinforce that behaviour. The idea is to break this pattern of communication and replace it with a healthier way of communicating and negotiating what the child needs, whether it’s your time, attention, affection or another doll/jersey.

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is the practice of applying the psychological principles of learning and behaviour theories in a systematic way to modify or change specific behaviour in children and young adults. These behaviours may include reading, communication, academics and social skills as well as other adaptive learning skills like, hygiene, punctuality, grooming, domestic capabilities, fine motor dexterity or work competence.

ABA therapists understand how behaviours are learned and how they can be changed or modified over a period of time. The therapist first evaluates the child’s behaviour and then creates a behaviour intervention plan after determining which behaviour requires change. The plan will include expected goals and outcomes, specific ways to measure changes and improvements in the behaviour and a review period to check the child’s progress over time. ABA requires heavy monitoring and continuous evaluation to see the best results.

In some cases, the ABA intervention plans may also include learning a new skill or avoiding certain negative behaviour either way the technique is driven by a strong reward system. ABA therapists conduct a preference assessment to find out what rewards the child might prefer over the ones offered currently by the caregivers or the environment. These rewards serve as a motivation for the child to persist on the intervention plan. Many parents get locked in a cycle of materialistic give and take when it comes to rewards. One must understand that rewards can be non-materialistic is nature as well, a simple extra 10 minutes of screen time may suffice. The idea is to allow the child to learn important skills and get rewarded with a fun tasks that he would otherwise take for granted.

ABA therapists usually work in varied settings like hospitals, group care facilities, autism treatment centres, schools and therapeutic centres. Hence, they also use their expertise to train parents, guardians and teachers to deal with behavioural issues at home or in other social settings. ABA is found to work best with children on the autism spectrum, a disorder in which children may have trouble communicating, maintaining eye contact and generally interacting socially. The therapeutic techniques have also proven to be useful in special education classrooms as well. ABA helps us understand learning patterns, environmental effects on a child’s development, and how to approach common learning disorders.

Research has shown that children with learning disabilities may also display behavioural problems or other disorders; like ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) which affects their attention and their ability to control their hyperactive and impulsive behaviour. This lack of control usually labels them as the “naughty ones” or “trouble makers” in school. It leads the child to often engage in disruptive behaviour in the classroom, at home and in most cases affects the way they interact with their siblings, peers and friends.

Therefore, when it comes to special needs and learning disabilities, ABA therapy focuses on improving language and academic capabilities, communication skills, limit negative behavioural patterns, improve learning outcomes, and help develop better social skills – among many others. Before we understand what ABA techniques would be beneficial to children with learning difficulties, let’s first understand the most common learning disabilities.

Dyslexia is a language-based disability. Children with dyslexia commonly have difficulty with reading and writing as the disability affects the way the child’s brain process written words.

Dysgraphia affects a person’s ability to write. Children with this learning disability usually have a difficult time with handwriting; which includes forming letters, spacing words, and spelling. 

Dyscalculia is a math-related learning disability. Students with this disability find it   difficult to grasp math and number concepts, like counting, telling time and solving arithmetic problems.

Auditory and Visual Processing Disorders are sensory disabilities that cause children and young adults to have trouble processing spoken or written language in spite of possessing normal functions of vision and hearing. 

ABA therapist can help address these various learning disabilities by setting up a structured environment to teach children how to learn. The ABA techniques are focused on developing basic skills, like listening, as well as more complex skills, for instance reading. As our behaviour therapist at TABIS, Ridhima Sharma explained, “When it comes to addressing learning difficulties the focus is to breakdown skills into its step-wise components and teach the child each component individually (rewarding them along the way) before they gain complete competence on the entire task or skill.”

Instead of teaching an entire skill in one go, the skill is broken down and “built-up” using discrete trials, this is called Discrete Trial Training (DTT). DTT breaks down a big, complex task into smaller, more manageable segments to make them easier for the children to understand and absorb. It uses the cue-and-response strategy, wherein a response to a prompt is reacted to with rewards or corrections.

ABA therapist also use other techniques such as Chaining – Breaking a skill down into its step by step components; Chunking – The process of taking individual pieces of information and grouping them into larger categories; Classical conditioning – A kind of learning in which a person comes to associate two kinds of stimuli. The first stimuli naturally prompts a given behaviour or response while the second stimuli does not; Clustering – Organizing information in memory into related groups and the commonly used technique, Token Economy: A system for providing positive reinforcement in the form of tokens for behaving in desired ways or completing tasks. The tokens can then be exchanged for certain rewards. When it comes to learning disabilities the primary goal of ABA therapy is to teach new, productive skills to improve various aspects of learning whether it is reading, writing, math or comprehension. Of course every child is different and that way improvements must also be noted on a case by case level. Therefore, it is important to set specific goals with clear measurable outcomes in order to acknowledge the improvement in the child. Hence, ABA techniques can truly improve and empower children with learning disabilities because it gives them various ways and strategies to learn and breakdown complex tasks into simple steps that can make learning and studying fun and engaging again.