Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis is the scientific study of behaviors of social importance. Established principles of behavior, described in large part by B. F. Skinner through his meticulous empirical investigations with nonhuman animals, are applied to the improvement of behaviors about which people in our society care. Applied behavior analysis attempts to understand behavior through precise and reliable measurement of interactions between individuals’ behavior and their environment, while isolating the conditions that create important behavior change.

Unlike approaches in psychology that rely on behavior to provide information regarding hypothetical entities (e.g., a young boy’s aggression is an indicator of low self-esteem or a faulty information-processing system), in applied behavior analysis, behavior itself is the subject matter of interest. Contrary to popular belief, applied behavior analysis does not restrict the variables that influence behavior to those found in the environment outside the skin. Applied behavior analysis acknowledges the influence of genetics and other biological variables and recognizes that biological research contributes to a broader understanding of behavior. In addition, applied behavior analysts consider private events, that is, those events that can be observed by only one person (e.g., somatosensory stimuli), to be real events that can influence behavior. Nevertheless, most applied behavior analysis researchers have looked where the light is good—the environment outside the skin—for variables responsible for changes in behavior, both public and private (e.g., thinking), primarily because these variables lend themselves to objective measurement and manipulation given the current state of technology.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

How Is Applied Behavior Analysis Relevant To Child Development?

Because of its ability to describe, predict, and improve important behavior, applied behavior analysis represents a particularly practical approach to understanding children’s development. In psychology, development is typically characterized as orderly changes  across  time.  In  contrast,  Sidney W.  Bijou and Donald M. Baer, who contributed greatly to the behavior-analytic approach to development, defined development as progressive changes in interactions between  the  behavior  of  individuals  and  events  in their environments. Their use of the term progressive emphasizes not that development necessarily advances in a linear fashion, but instead that development depends on earlier conditions. This definition shifts the emphasis from a search for time-related variables (e.g., ages and stages) to the behavior environment processes that produce behavior change.

Much of what is known about child development is collected through normative studies in which population samples are surveyed to determine the most likely age at which a particular skill can be reliably observed (e.g., children learn to walk when they are about 1 year old). These data are essential in determining typical and atypical development. Applied behavior analysis goes beyond this focus on when a particular behavior occurs during one’s lifetime, to analyze why and how particular behaviors emerge. In this way, once atypical development is identified, a behavioral analysis will attempt to identify the conditions that will remediate the developmental trajectories of children. In other words, applied behavior analysis attempts to identify and describe the specific learning history and present environmental variables that combine to give rise to specific important behaviors, such as walking, eating with utensils, talking, problem solving, and caring for others in distress.

Many developmental psychologists imbue specific behaviors with great importance because they mark the point of some other, more important change for the individual, such as the passage to a more advanced stage (see the work of Jean Piaget). An applied behavior analysis of development and more traditional approaches to development agree that development is not linear, but instead is punctuated with qualitative changes in behavior. Traditional developmental psychologists often consider these changes to be caused by the emergence of an internal hypothetical structure (a walking or problem-solving schema) or that the behavior (e.g., understanding that fluids in tall and wide containers may have the same volume) is a product of a particular stage (e.g., period of concrete operations). The applied behavior analysis approach considers the stages to be descriptive, in that they too need to be explained. Therefore, qualitative changes in the rate and form of development are considered to be a product of necessary physical conditions, the child’s history of interactions with the environment, and present circumstances.

In summary, an applied behavior analysis approach to development shifts the emphasis from the importance of behavioral topography (what a behavior looks like) and when particular topographies of behavior emerge as a means to infer changes in some hypothetical constructs, to behavioral function, which entails identifying the specific preconditions for the emergence of a behavior. Before describing some of the contributions made by an applied behavior analysis approach to development, a brief review of the applied behavior analysis conceptual system is necessary.

Describing And Understanding Behavior

Principles of behavior are derived from experimental analyses of the behavior of human and nonhuman animals. This literature suggests the existence of two main types of behavior—respondents and operants. Respondents, also known as reflexes, were initially described by the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov in his now famous experiments in which dogs reliably salivated at the sound of a bell owing to the dog’s earlier history in which food was presented with the sound of a bell. Respondents are automatic, involuntary, and typically physiological responses (blinking, changes in heart rate) that are a function of preceding environmental events (e.g., loud noise). Contrary to the popular belief that behavior analysis is a stimulus-response (S-R) psychology, applied behavior analysis does not consider all behavior to be respondent or mechanically elicited from environmental events. In fact, respondents make up a small proportion of the behaviors that are the subject matter in applied behavior analysis.

Operants are the important behaviors of everyday life. They are generally what we do—walking, eating, socializing, working, playing—or say. They are the primary  behaviors  of  interest  in  applied  behavior  analysis. Operants are not defined by what they look like (saying, “Excuse me,” raising a hand in class, making eye contact, or yelling across a noisy room); they are defined by their common consequences (attention). The effects or consequences of an operant on the environment are responsible for determining the future probability of that behavior. In other words, operants, unlike respondents, are thought to be sensitive to their consequences. If a behavior results in a change that is an improvement for the individual, then that  behavior  will  be  more  likely  to  occur  in  the future. This is the process of reinforcement. An infant’s raising and moving her arm is reinforced by music and the mobile’s movement, if under similar conditions, these behaviors occur again. By contrast, if a behavior results in a change that is worse for the individual, then that type of behavior will be less likely to occur. This is the process of punishment. Operant  behavior  and  its  associated  consequences also occur in a context, and therefore, events that precede operant behavior come to influence its occurrence through their association with its consequences. For instance, a child may learn that crying will only result in a bottle when her mother, but not when her brother, is present. Behavior occurring in a context makes up what is known as a contingency. An analysis of a behavior involves identifying relevant aspects of a contingency—what are the momentary conditions that make the reinforcer valuable (referred to as establishing operations) and clearly available (referred to as discriminative stimuli), and what are the consequences that either maintain (reinforcers) or suppress (punishers) important behaviors?

Applied Behavior Analytic Contributions To Child Development

Understanding child development entails careful observation and description of important behavior in relevant environments in order to discover the necessary and sufficient learning histories that give rise to important behaviors. These “functional analyses” have been used to understand how children develop motor, language, and social skills, as well as problem-solving and moral behaviors. The behavior-analytic conceptual system and the concept of reinforcement in particular were invoked by Donald M. Baer to explain the qualitative changes in behavior described in many normative developmental studies. He described  how,  at  various  points  in  time,  children learn particularly important behaviors, referred to as behavioral cusps, which bring the child in contact with a variety of reinforcers for new behavior. An example of a behavioral cusp is learning to walk, which permits the toddler to see and touch (and taste!) things that were previously inaccessible. This, in turn, leads to improved play, greater social interactions, and so on.

Understanding the conditions under which important behaviors emerge has contributed to the conceptualization of child development, but perhaps more important, it has allowed for applied behavior analysts to solve a wide range of problems for children with learning and developmental disabilities. Behavior analysts have developed highly effective interventions for severe problem behaviors exhibited by children diagnosed with autism or other developmental disabilities, childhood eating disorders, and mental illnesses such as depression. From preschool classrooms to  middle  school,  from  language  to  leisure  skills, and from community involvement to quality of life, behavior analysts continue to explore, attempt to understand, and enhance development in a variety of socially important arenas.


  1. Association of  Behavior  Analysis, Behavior Analyst,
  2. Bijou, W. (1996). New directions in behavior development. Reno, NV: Context Press.Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, http://www.behavior .org
  3. Journal of  Applied  Behavior  Analysis,  http://seab.envmed
  4. Novak, G. (1996). Developmental psychology: Dynamic systems and behavior Reno, NV: Context Press.
  5. Schlinger, D. (1995). A behavior analytic view of child development. New York: Plenum.