how is aba different from behavior modification

How Is ABA Different From Behavior Modification?

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Answering “How is ABA different from behavior modification?” can be quite helpful for parents and their children.

As two methods meant to work towards eliminating aversive behaviors, these therapy techniques are very well known.

They both work towards the same result, and their definitions are also more similar than you’d think.

Whether you’re seeking a behavioral modification for a child with ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), or autism, these therapies can help.

Let’s explore both ABA and behavior modification so you can know what to expect from both and their differences.

How Is ABA Different From Behavior Modification?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and behavior modification are very similar.

Both theories relate to removing or replacing unpleasant behaviors with pleasant ones, and they come from the same school of thought.

With applications developed from B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists, these therapeutic methods can be quite helpful.

Both techniques are so similar they are often referred to as the same thing.

The only difference is that behavioral modification is a more modernized term for Applied Behavior Analysis.

Let’s delve into both theories and their applications and end goals.

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Through Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), licensed therapists will use different learning principles to direct their patient’s actions.

Different types of conditioning, such as classical or operant, are often used with this methodology.

In simple terms, ABA allows therapists to help replace aversive or undesirable behaviors and actions with “desirable” ones.

Initially, ABA was developed to assist behavioral outcomes in children with autism during the 1960s.

Over the years, the practice has developed, showing great promise to children suffering from traumatic brain injuries and ADHD.

However, most therapists still use it as a part of treatment plans for autistic children.

How Was Applied Behavior Analysis Developed?

ABA was developed in the early 20th century with John B. Watson’s theory of behavior and psychology.

He believed that psychology should be studied using a patient’s observable behavior rather than internalized thoughts.

This theory was then taken and expanded on by B.F. Skinner, one of the most notable names in behavioral psychology.

Skinner’s theory was that it is also essential to consider the consequences of one’s behavior.

As a result, punishments and rewards could determine future behaviors equally as an individual’s environment.

Together, these theories developed behaviorism, a school of thought quite prevalent in today’s psychology.

Ole Ivar Lovaas was the true father of Applied Behavior Analysis, developing the approach in the mid-1960s. Lovaas’ goals with using ABA included:

  • Reducing inappropriate stimming behaviors in autistic children
  • Reducing behaviors that would cause self-injury
  • Assisting with developing life skills and language
learn how is aba different from behavior modification

How Is Applied Behavior Analysis Used?

Today, ABA is still a widely used therapeutic technique for children with various mental disorders.

However, the initial 1960s development by Lovaas has been refined.

For example, reducing inappropriate stimming behaviors is now known as a method of self-regulation for some children.

There are multiple ways therapists will begin implementing ABA into their treatment plans for children.

Some of the most common approaches include:

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

With DTT, children are provided with instructions to perform specific skills.

Each skill is broken down into smaller steps, guiding the patient through the process needed to complete the skill.

If the individual completes the skill correctly, they will receive a reward, typically a candy or toy.

If the wrong steps are followed, the therapist may offer an additional prompt or repeat the question.

In most instances, therapists will use DTT in structured settings. The therapist will often sit across from the child in a less natural setting.

Taking a more structured approach to this method is essential for studying the child’s behavior.

It can also simplify the observer to notice any minor or significant behavioral changes.

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)

In comparison to Discrete Trial Training, Pivotal Response Training teaches generalized skills.

The main objective of this treatment method is to develop the foundation for children to develop different social behaviors.

Using this process, patients can learn various tasks by mastering pivotal skills.

With PRT, parents are likely to see significant improvements in other areas of behavioral learning.

For example, if a child learns how to listen during therapy quietly, they may also have better school-related behaviors.

Another considerable difference between DTT and PRT is that PRT is more play-based.

Instead of relying on structured instructions, a therapist will take a backseat while allowing the child to play.

The therapist will observe the child’s playing behavior, waiting for an opportunity to intervene to teach a key skill.

When performing positive skills, the rewards will often be intangible.

Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)

The ESDM isn’t as prevalent as DTT and PRT, especially depending on the patient’s capabilities.

However, some therapists find it more efficient to teach appropriate behavioral skills.

With EDSM, therapists will administer behavioral training in either structured instructional or play-based formats.

The behavioral analyst or therapist will try to teach multiple skills with a single exercise. For example, instructing a child to take a block out of a bag.

With ESDM, the therapist will teach the child about shapes and motor skills for removing the block from the bag.

What Is Behavior Modification?

Interestingly, behavior modification is very similar to ABA.

Both terms relate to the same therapeutic approach taken to replace improper behavioral actions with desirable ones.

The primary difference between ABA and behavior modification is the name, with Applied Behavior Analysis being the more modernized term.

Behavior modification relies on changing the patterns of a child’s behavior over a long term using motivational techniques.

However, this hasn’t always been the case, as behavior modification has also been known for using harmful techniques to eliminate undesirable behavior.

Today, behavior modification can use ethical consequences and rewards to enhance positive behaviors with a more modern approach.

Relying on the same tenets of B.F. Skinner’s behavioral modification model this approach can assist with maintaining positive habits.

Psychotherapists can also use it in various ways, from children dealing with ADHD to adults with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).

How Is Behavior Modification Used?

There are six central techniques that therapists rely on when working with behavior modification.

These techniques include:

Positive Reinforcement

As the most-used aspect of behavior modification, positive reinforcement reinforces good behavior with positive rewards.

The motivator can vary depending on the patient, such as verbal praise or a tangible item such as candy.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is often divided into two aspects: positive and negative punishment.

With positive punishment, therapists will add a consequence to a specific expressed behavior.

This process is then supposed to deter the patient from performing the same behavior again.

Positive punishment has been a considerable discussion in behavior modification for many years.

In the past, positive punishment wasn’t as ethical, often involving electric shocks and physical abuse.

Fortunately, today, therapists have refined positive punishment to avoid significant harm to patients.

On the other hand, negative punishment takes something away every time a behavior gets expressed.

For example, preventing a child from playing during recess because of a negative behavior they expressed during class.


One of the most prevalent goals of behavior modification is to enhance shaping.

Shaping is to reinforce new, desirable behaviors instead of old, undesirable ones.

Most often, shaping is used when trying to get someone through phobias and anxiety disorders.


Extinction is essentially the end goal for behavior modification.

When a patient enters this stage, the discouraged behavior is stopped altogether or has lessened in its prevalence.


Many therapists rely on a technique known as fading or conditioning when using behavioral modification.

With this process, they will gradually withdraw different types of reinforcement until motivation is no longer needed.

For example, stopping rewarding children with candy when they express positive behaviors.

However, it doesn’t mean that all types of positive reinforcement are removed.

Most often, therapists will replace one motivator for another.

For example, eliminating candy as a reward and replacing it with verbal praise for expressing a positive behavior.

Behavior Modification and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a modernized approach that can assist with modifying behaviors.

It’s a unique way to look at how you react to situations using an outside perspective, and it can assist with achieving personal goals over time.

It could also be one of the better options for adults interested in working on problematic behaviors, allowing you to become the person you’ve always wanted to be.

To learn more about Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), we highly recommend these guides:

Final Thoughts

When asking, “How is ABA different from behavior modification?” the answer is both are essentially the same.

With techniques used to change negative behaviors into positive ones, they can help many mental disorders.

As a parent, you might even find that you’ve been working with behavior modification for years before seeking therapy.

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