Learning is a complex process that emerges and is refined over time as traumatic and/or life changing events serve to spur it on. It is an interaction of complex variables: values and beliefs influenced by the learner’s personality, cultural rules, family’s values and beliefs, and the perspective through which all is viewed. Learning is also influenced by the context in which it occurs. The learner in turn affects that same context. So, it becomes a cycle and the learners’ society will benefit or reap the consequences of the collective learning of its members. Cultural norms and values vary and each may interact with and affect an individual’s learning. A learner’s socioeconomic status may also interact with and/or affect his/her learning. Learning can occur intentionally or unintentionally. This is the big picture of learning over a lifetime and from this view it is complex, but there is a much smaller picture and that is where ABA fits in so nicely. ABA seeks to make learning more intentional in the building block stage; in the stage where the foundation of a learner’s journey begins. When we break learning down and start looking at it through the lens of Behavior Analysis, we can begin to understand more fully the complex process of learning.
ABA in Unintentional Learning (“natural learning”): When a child touches a hot stove did he/she intend to learn the difference between hot and cold or what would happen when something hot was touched? No. The stove was touched. The child was burned. Learning occurred. Much of learning naturally occurs in this way: as a result of what happens after the individual performed an action. Sometimes that is positive and sometimes it is negative. As in the case with the hot stove, what happened after the action (touching the stove) was negative (the feeling of the hot stove). Behavior analysis says this “negative” consequence serves to reduce the behavior that preceded it (touching the stove). Behavior analysis calls this positive punishment. The addition of a negatively perceived consequence serves to decrease the behavior that came before it. So, in the future, the learner is less likely to touch the stove. The next action (removing one’s hand from the hot stove) is called negative reinforcement. The individual was “reinforced” when performing the action (moving one’s hand) because the aversive condition (hot stove) was removed. Reinforcement (whether negative or positive) serves to increase the behavior that preceded it, while punishment services to decrease the behavior that preceded it.
ABA in Intentional Learning (facilitating “natural learning”): We can take this knowledge and set up environments were these conditions will occur to facilitate learning. Other variables must be taken into account, though. For example, not all learners find the same things reinforcing and/or aversive. A child with sensitivity to noise will find a rock concert very aversive, while a teenager may find the same environment with the lights and noise very reinforcing. Different events and conditions can affect the likelihood a certain reinforcer or punisher will effectively function in the way it is intended to. For example, a child who typically finds physical activity very reinforcing may be less likely to be reinforced by it after a night with little to no sleep. Someone who is full may not gain as much reinforcement from a piece of chocolate cake. There are these and other facets to developing a behavior plan that will result in learning through manipulation of the environment, not through manipulation of the individual.