If you have any experience with an ABA therapist, you know it’s a field with a lot of terminology: reinforcement schedules, prompt hierarchies, extinction bursts, contingencies, and a list of abbreviations (DRO,DRL, NCR, Sd etc.).

While the terms encourage precision, they can be hard to wrap your head around, even for behaviorists! (Just ask any soon-to-be BCBA who is studying for the exam.) It’s helpful to remember these are strategies everyone use, whether he or she knows the term or not. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, teachers, coaches, mentors , and anyone who has achieved a personal goal, employ behavior principles to great effect! In an effort to ground some of these terms in examples, here are a few everyday instances and definitions of behavior terms, with the hope that you’ll see the applied behavior analyst in yourself:

Prompts: Anything added to the environment to help a person perform a desired behavior. Prompts can be physical, visual, verbal, or gestural, just to name a few forms. Examples are numerous and include: tap on the should or a kick under the table before someone makes an unwelcome comment (physical prompt), leave a Post-It note reminder in the middle of the computer screen (visual prompt), a “last call” to use the bathroom before a trip (verbal prompt), or that certain facial expression that means “I know what you have been up to, it’s better to fess up now” without saying a word (gestural prompt).

Differential Reinforcement: The act of reinforcing a preferred behavior over a non-preferred behavior. The goal is to have the preferred behavior occur more often and the non-preferred behavior fade away. A simple example of this is responding to a child’s forceful demands by prompting him to “ask nicely” and waiting for a sweeter tone and kinder words before responding to the request. He learns that a demanding tone won’t get him as far as a gentle request. In doing this a behavior is shaped, gradually changed with successive approximations, reinforcing smaller goal behaviors that build toward a bigger goal. Anyone who has trained for a “Couch to 5K”  has used this strategy. Step 1: reinforce putting sneakers on over sitting on the couch. Step 2: Reinforce walking briskly around the block over a detour to the ice cream stand. Step 3: Reinforce a job over a casual stroll. Step 4: Reinforce making it to the finish line (preferably with that ice cream sundae!).

Intermittent Reinforcement: When a preferred behavior is sometimes, but not always, reinforced. It is in contrast to continuous reinforcement, which occurs every time a person completes a preferred behavior. While a new skill may be rewarded every time, most skills eventually move to intermittent reinforcement. Studies show that a schedule of intermittent reinforcement is more effective to sustain a behavior than constant reinforcement (if you know someone who checks his or her smartphone every two minutes for a message or update, that behavior is a product of intermittent reinforcement).

The Premack Principle: This is commonly known as “First/Then,” or the “Grandma Rule.” For example, first you eat your vegetables and then you get dessert. By making a preferred activity contingent on doing something non-preferred, the non-preferred activity can be accomplished. (Although most grandmas I know prefer non-contingent reinforcement, delivering a free supply of cookies and sweets with no strings attached.)

These are jut a few examples of a handful of principles and there are many more. If it is a principle used by your behaviorist, there should be an example of the practice you can pull from everyday life. Behaviorists writing a behavior plan may often find the plans to be a scientific description of a classic parenting strategy. At these times, they probably owe their mom, dad, coach and/or grandma a thank you call (skill maintenance).

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