Haring Center

15. Roots of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Every innovative practice developed by Haring Center researchers has roots in the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Widely used in special education programs across the country, ABA is the practice of using behavioral strategies to make meaningful change in areas that will have a significant impact on a student’s quality of life. Strategies and methods still in practice today can be traced back to Haring Center researchers Sidney Bijou, Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf and Todd Risley.

This group of researchers observed a lack of options for educators to measure the effectiveness of their classroom instruction to children. In fact, once given an introduction to ABA, many teachers discovered that long-practiced classroom methods were actually counterproductive in teaching children with special needs. Seeking to identify new strategies to address challenging behaviors that can interfere with the learning of individuals with disabilities, Baer, Wolf and Risley developed strategies that utilized reinforcement and punishment to promote or deter specific behaviors.

Incorporating a scientific approach to learning and behavior, where educators record strategies used and their consequent results, was completely new to education in the 1960s and introduced B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist principles to the field. The group published a significant work titled “The Effect Withdrawal of Positive Reinforcement on an Extinguishing Response in Young Children” based on their findings in Experimental Education Unit classrooms in 1960.

ABA principles are integral to every EEU program, as well as each of the Haring Center’s major projects from the Model Program for Children with Down Syndrome in the 1960s to the ongoing Project DATA for children on the autism spectrum. On a broader spectrum, ABA methods have extended beyond education since its introduction in the 1960s. The fields of medicine, mental health, criminal rehabilitation, nutrition, psychology, parenting, linguistics and more have been affected by the ABA principles originally identified and described by Haring Center researchers at the University of Washington.