ABA Methods: An Overview

As you begin to research Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), you may be wondering what exactly is involved in this type of therapy. Here are some of the most common Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) teaching methods that we employ at Positive Behavioral Connections.

Intensive Teaching

If a child is unable to work in a group, he or she will need to begin with intensive teaching. Intensive teaching is an opportunity to build language, pre-academic and other critical skills – giving the child a more solid foundation before expanding the child’s instructions into group settings or other environments.

Many early learners spend all of their therapy time in intensive teaching. As the child ages and builds skills, gradually other methods of teaching will be introduced. Once the child gains the skills to learn in a group setting, there can be a complete transition to more natural environment instruction.

Discrete Trial

The discrete trial is most often conducted in a typical table-and-chairs setting with very specific goals. The child is given a very specific question or demand with a specific expected response, and reinforcement is given or not, depending on the child’s response. This is not trial and error. We prefer an errorless approach, favoring plenty of repetition and using fading prompts. With discrete trial instruction, our focus is to strongly reinforce the child’s skills.

Natural Environment

Natural environment teaching provides a bridge between intensive/discrete trial teaching and incidental teaching. The instruction takes place in a more natural setting, but the therapist still retains full control over the environment. This allows the therapist to help the child begin to generalize the skills he or she has learned, transitioning those skills from one-on-one settings over to everyday life.

For example, in intensive teaching, we might work on labelling and identifying the eating utensils used at the dinner table – while still in an instructional setting; in natural environment teaching, we will take the child to the kitchen, open up the kitchen drawers, and work with the child to identify the utensils. Another common practice skill in this area is teaching a child to play with toys.

Wherever the child might need a skill, we will typically introduce that skill first in an instructional setting and then move to a natural environment. Most Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) programs spend a great deal of effort on this generalization. In other words, in ABA programs we may teach the child the same skills again and again, but the way we deliver the instruction will change over time as the child progresses.

Incidental Teaching

In incidental teaching, the therapist works with the child in everyday settings and is able to take advantage of the unscripted teaching moments that invariably arise. For that to happen, the therapist must have a prescribed plan ahead of time, so that the therapist can fully leverage the teaching opportunity when it happens.

For instance, if this therapist is working with a child on saying “hi” to peers, the therapist has to wait for the situation to arise naturally. Because the therapist has a plan, though, when the situation does happen, the therapist can seize the moment for full advantage

Incidental teaching is ideal as the child progresses in skills because the child needs to practice the skill at the exact moment the skill is needed, but the therapist often has little control over when this will happen. We try to set up a protocol so that our staff is prepared, and then we simply wait for the right moment to arise.

Incidental teaching supplements – rather than replaces – the other work the therapist does. It is also the central aspect of shadowing, that is, using natural opportunities to pursue a therapy goal.


When a child with autism is in a school classroom setting or community environment, such as day camp or park district program, a therapist may be able to shadow the child. This shadowing can help to gently move the child toward more general skills and social/group skills.

Shadowing is typically conducted over the course of a whole day but can also be targeted to only those times when the child needs it most – such as a park district swim class. Many children may need a full-time shadow in the start of therapy but eventually can scale back as they develop the skills they need to thrive in a group setting. However, this all depends on the individual child’s goals.

The issue is, as always, the therapeutic benefit involved. What is the clinical goal for the child? The shadow is not there to be either a spectator or an extra set of hands for the classroom teacher. Instead, the shadow must have a definable purpose and clear objectives, so that the child can receive the instruction he or she needs that will result in progress.

Do you have questions about a specific Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) method? Contact us today to find out how therapy can help your child achieve his or her goals. We’re here to help!


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