As an ABA therapist, you have probably heard the term “Operant Conditioning” or “Instrumental Conditioning” being used in conjunction with therapeutic methods that focuses on the strength of specific behavior as well as how it can be modified via positive or negative reinforcement. It can theoretically be used for adults, children, and sometimes even in training animals. It also lends itself to ABA therapy principles.

Though to find out how to use operant conditioning effectively, we are going to have to take a closer look at the key details behind how it works, and why it works. This will serve as a sort of primer to determine if operant conditioning is right for your ABA therapy practice.

The History of Operant Conditioning

Also known as instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning can trace its roots back to early twentieth-century psychology. Many of its key principles are based on a series of studies conducted by Edward L. Thorndike, who also researched and developed the “Law of Effect.”

The American Psychology Association defined the Law of Effect as the “principle that consequences of behavior act to modify the future probability of occurrence of that behavior.” This essentially services as a firm foundation for how positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement can be used in developmental, educational, and behavioral psychology.

The well-known behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner notably disagreed with what he considered to be “Neo-behaviorism.” Instead, he sought other explanations for external behaviors which also focused on how they could be reinforced or modified.

Skinner’s theory hinged on the concept that internal thoughts and motivations did not always explain behaviors. He believed that behaviorists should look only at the external influences and objective observations of an individual’s environment and the possible causes of their behavior. This more layered approach focused on how the consequences of an individual’s actions played a role in their future choices and behavior.

B.F. Skinner’s take on operant conditioning took the world of psychology by storm in the early part of the 20th Century. Today it is still used in several subfields within psychology and specifically behaviorist treatment strategies. In Applied Behavior Analysis it can even be applied in daily clinical work.

What Are The Fundamentals Of Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning theory strives to find the best way to understand people by their observable behaviors. The goal is to produce quantifiable data, that can be analyzed, and tracked. This allows the ABA therapist to formulate better-informed strategies to change or modify specific behaviors. When applied systematically and objectively this ABA data helps providers understand their patients and the methodology that they respond to best,

Positive Reinforcement For Good Behaviors

It is important to bear in mind that not every positive behavior needs to be reinforced or modified. The underlying goal in operant conditioning is to utilize positive and negative reinforcements to “condition” the individual to do more or less of any specific behavior. It tends to be a great tool for ABA therapists who work with patients who are on the autism spectrum.

Reinforcement Strategies For Diminishing Bad Behavior

B.F. Skinner also believed that reinforcements and punishments could be tools to reduce negative or disruptive behavior. The concept is that the individual acts can be modified over time and through repetition. In terms of ABA therapy, you might employ operant conditioning strategies to steer the patient away from disruptive tendencies.

Assessing How Environment Impacts Behavior

Operant conditioning also employs the notion that a person’s environment directly influences how they behave. This might be a child who starts to act disruptively in a specific classroom or environment like gym or music class but doesn’t act out in the primary classroom environment. Determining what it is in those environments that stimulate the negative behavior makes it easier to modify the child’s behavior when they are in gym or music class.

Determining How Behaviors Are Learned

The philosophy behind operant conditioning provides clinicians with key insight into how behaviors are learned. B.F. Skinner believed that external behaviors are learned and instilled rather than developing on their own. This could mean that the child in the earlier example, who acted out with negative behavior in gym class, may have started as an association with a previous bad or negative experience.

The Use Of Reinforcement & Punishment

The concept behind reinforcement and punishment involves a consistent practice of operant conditioning where the individual will want to modify their behavior based on a known set of consequences. Operant conditioning doesn’t seek to punish or reward in an intentional, or emotional way but instead offering positive or negative reinforcement objectively. This might also include helping the individual process the reward or punishment afterward so that they can draw a clear logical understanding from the events. This can then help them modify their behavior in the future.

Applying The Science Of Operant Conditioning To ABA Therapy

Applied behavior analysis uses evidence-based interventions to help adults and children who operate on the autism spectrum. It is a scientific technique designed to help individuals change behavior while also helping them to learn new social, communication, and educational skills with the overarching goal of helping to boost their success in both their personal and professional lives.

As an ABA therapist operant conditioning gives you a set of tools and strategies that let you objectively use positive or negative reinforcement to help your patients steer themselves away from negative behaviors.

Of course, this also means that effective data collection is key in developing operant conditioning strategies and tracking progress toward measurable outcomes. If you cannot quantify and track how a specific patient is progressing during sessions you cannot track their progress over time, and it makes it virtually impossible to establish achievable goals.

This might mean collecting data with a pen and paper or using a hand clicker to track specific behaviors or outbursts during a session. The data collected from multiple sessions can then be implemented into a spreadsheet that lets you track the individual’s progress at a glance. As time goes on you can even use these data sets to modify behavior toward higher and higher goals that are as measurable as they are achievable.