Applied Behavioral Analysis: the Therapist-Approved tool every parent needs to know about

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is a powerful, evidence-based practice that helps parents connect with and communicate with their children. If you’ve only heard about ABA in conversations around Autism, that’s because parents of children diagnosed with autism often consider ABA the Gold Standard for treatment.

What most parents haven’t discovered is, ABA should be the Gold Standard for everyone.

Increase positive behaviors and decrease negative behaviors

In short, ABA is all about looking at environmental factors and evaluating their effect on behavior, then connecting with your child and helping them improve beneficial behaviors and cut down on others. After all, isn’t that the goal of parenting? To help your child develop positive behaviors they will one day take out into the world with them?

Dr. Greg Hanley of the Practical Functional Assessment: Understanding Problem Behavior Prior to its Treatment suggests there are four main components of modern ABA that every parent can benefit from.

  1. Learn by Listening: Children communicate through their behavior. ABA helps us figure out what they’re trying to communicate. 
  2. Learn by Creating Joy: Show your child you understand them by offering them things and activities they love. 
  3. Learn by Empowering: Set clear expectations for your child while allowing opportunities for them to communicate their wants and needs. 
  4. Learn While Teaching: Demonstrate positive behaviors to your child. They’re watching you!

Learn by listening: What is your child trying to tell you?

Acting out is a child’s way of communicating. Whether it’s a toddler throwing a temper tantrum or a teenager rebelling against their parents, they’re trying to get a point across.  

Most of the time, if you ask the right questions, you can figure out why the behavior is happening. Ask your child about their likes and dislikes toward activities, people, social interactions, or locations. ABA concludes that a child’s behavior is influenced by their environment. Maybe all your child is trying to communicate is that they’re uncomfortable with a person or situation they’re in. If you can get to the environmental root of the problem, a solution becomes much clearer.

It’s also important to find out how your child likes to communicate with you. Some like face to face interactions, and believe it or not, some of the older kids are just fine with a text message. However you get your message across, personalize it to the human who is a part of you.

Having open and honest communication with your child can reveal teaching, coaching and supportive opportunities as parents that are easy to miss if we’re not listening.

Learn by creating joy: Show your child you know them.

Fill your child’s space with things that they genuinely enjoy. Based on all of that awesome information you gathered from communicating with your child, offer them items and activities that they actually like.

This can be challenging as parents because sometimes we want our children to engage in things that brought us joy. But that might not be your child’s reality! For instance, I enjoyed all things sports growing up and I absolutely despise the color pink. However, my daughter is an absolute glam girl. She enjoys sparkles, glitter, flowers and so far, doesn’t have much of an interest in sports. As her parent, my role is to be supportive and show her that I know who she is, not who I want her to be.

Be sure to communicate through your actions to your child that you know them, you see them, you are there for them, and that you hear them. These actions will bring your child joy.

Learn by empowering: Set expectations and continue communicating.

You can begin building trust with your child by providing clear, consistent and concise expectations with them. If you notice any signs of problem behavior emerging, address it at once. If you tell your child to clean up for dinner and they begin to complain, talk back, or start to whine, be clear and purposeful with your communication to them.

For example:“It sounds like you are upset and would like another minute before cleaning up. You can ask for another minute without whining or complaining.”

This type of communication empowers your child to successfully get something they want, while building a positive behavior, like clearly communicating without whining or complaining. As this process continues, it is likely that your child will follow your directions sooner rather than asking for another minute as the trust and empowerment grows.

Learn while teaching: Set an example with your own behaviors.

Teaching and learning opportunities happen all the time. ABA suggests that a learner is only as good as their teacher. That means, when you see skill deficits in your child’s developmental, social, daily-living, or societal skills, that communicates that they need more teaching. Maybe they need to see you demonstrate the behavior more, or maybe they need it explained in a different way.

Regardless, your child relies on you to model positive behaviors, and lead and support them through developing positive behaviors of their own. Remember, when you’re engaged in teaching moments, it’s still important to let your child know that you hear them, see them, know them, and will be there for them.

Understanding the behavioral episode

One of the most useful things to consider when parenting is that everything is a behavioral episode: good, bad or indifferent. Behavior in this sense refers to anything that a person says or does. When you wake your child in the morning with a warm embrace and smile and they groan, turn over and bury back under the blankets, that’s a behavioral episode. You woke them up, they groaned and rolled over to gain a few added minutes of sleep.

When looking at groaning and rolling over as an isolated behavior, you can find why your child engaged in the behavior. They’re still tired! If you don’t isolate the behavioral episode, you can fall victim to some unhealthy behaviors, like thinking your child doesn’t like you, that they have a bad attitude, that maybe they don’t like school, they don’t feel well, the list goes on.

The idea here is, you can find a concrete reason why a behavior occurs rather than make an assumption that could be far off from the truth.

Take home message: There will be bumps along the way, but ABA is a powerful parenting tool!

Parenting is so hard. No matter how prepared we think we are for parenthood there will always be bumps and hiccups that we aren’t prepared for. Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence-based process that can be a powerful tool for anyone navigating parenting challenges. 

Our app aims to help parents understand and communicate with their kids using the psychology behind ABA and other behavioral psychology methods. If you’re interested in finding out more, send us an email at We read and respond to every message! Or, sign up to be alerted when our app is ready for prime time.

Just Parent