Defining, labeling, and branding ABA procedures April 20, 2015

Let’s talk about our own professional behavior again. Let’s consider the topic of how we define, label, and promote our technology – the procedures and treatment models that make up our bag of tricks. Although we may be comfortable with the familiar technical dialect of ABA, it hides a number of issues our field has yet to systematically address. For convenience, we may organize them into three categories: 1) problems in how we define behavior change procedures, 2) problems in how we label or refer to these procedures, and 3) problems in how we promote these labels and their associated procedures to build a brand.

Defining procedures

There are a number of challenges we face in defining ABA procedures – an exercise that should result in clear distinctions and relationships among techniques that differ in meaningful ways. For example, some of our procedures lack clear specification of their features and limits. Shaping is a good example. Although its definition is well established, the term is applied in varied ways. Shaping was originally defined with reference to response topography, but it’s also applied to gradual change in other dimensional quantities such as duration and frequency or rate. Over time, however, it seems to have become a general label for any way of producing gradual change in behavior, regardless of the procedures or the nature of the changes in responding.

Another problem is that procedural definitions may overlap. The most familiar example lies in the definitions of time out, extinction, and response cost. Although it’s possible to identify operational differences among these terms, the rationales for these distinctions are debatable and not consistently applied in any case. Just because we can come up with distinctions in form does not mean they’re important or should be the basis for our definitions.

Sometimes the problem is that definitional referents are not adequate. This was a problem for extinction, for instance, until textbooks began to distinguish between variations based on different kinds of reinforcement histories (Lerman & Iwata, 1996; Iwata, Pace, Cowdery, & Miltenberger, 1994).

Some ABA procedures may seem well enough defined but actually involve many variations. For example, DRO, and DRA or DRI are major subclasses of a broad category that subsumes many variants of differential reinforcement procedures. The question is whether all of the variations belong in one category. For instance, some procedures involve an interval of time related to responding and some do not. Although differential reinforcement may be involved in both variations, does this mean both versions should be defined in the same category?

The procedure we call time out illustrates another issue. Some of our procedural labels are based on non-technical differences. The distinctions we make among variations in time out procedures are partly based on regulatory concerns with safety, particularly based on visual monitoring opportunities. These distinctions also embody an element of cultural values, in that some variations (non-exclusionary timeout) are seen as less acceptable than others (exclusionary timeout).

Labeling procedures

Definitional niceties aside, there are also challenges that stem from the labels we attach to procedural classifications, such as when our labels have different referents. For example, response cost can refer to either the loss of tokens or to changes in the effort involved in responding. An opposite problem is that different labels are sometimes used to refer to the same procedure. DRO is also labeled omission training, for example. Graduated guidance is also called physical prompting. Planned ignoring is just a form of time out.

Another labeling problem involves using colloquial terms for procedural labels. Terms such as shaping, ignoring, time out, satiation, fading, and so forth all have everyday usages that may not serve us well as a science-based technology. The colloquial character of these terms might not seem a problem in talking with parents or paraprofessional staff, but it can be a big problem as a basis for identifying formal distinctions in our technology.

This overlap with colloquial usage is sometimes intentional. In an effort to accommodate cultural values, we may borrow euphemistic terms as labels for technical procedures. For example, overcorrection, planned ignoring, contingent observation, contingent exercise, quiet training, required relaxation, and functional movement training are selected to obscure a more candid description of the procedure; they’re simply euphemisms.

Some procedural labels may be problematic because they are not widely acknowledged. They may refer to a minor procedural variation (backward chaining with leap aheads – Spooner, Spooner, & Ulicny, 1986), especially a variation not generally identified by others. Sometimes these uncommon labels may overlap with others. For instance, the putting-through procedure (Striefel, 1981) merely involves using physical prompts in training imitations. Reinforcer isolation (Mansdorf, 1977) is synonymous with time out in the form of withdrawing a reinforcer.

Sometimes a label invites conceptual confusions. Functional communication training or FCT (Carr & Durand, 1985) refers to a therapeutic strategy that involves establishing desirable behaviors that serve the same function as undesirable behaviors. The conceptual problem arises from describing diverse problem behaviors as inherently communicative in nature, even though most would not meet even broad criteria as verbal behavior. Of course, if all behavior is gratuitously interpreted as communication, the term loses all utility. (See “The problem with problem behavior as communication,” a post from September 2014).

Finally, there is the problem of using technical terms incorrectly. Perhaps the best example involves the term extinction. It is widely used as a label for a procedure, an effect of a procedure, and the underlying conditioning process responsible for that effect. With only a single term available for these different references, this sloppiness is hard to avoid.

Building a brand

Branding is a term widely used in the business community. It involves establishing through advertising a unique identity for a product or service with the objective of attracting customers and building their loyalty. This agenda might seem to have little to do with a science-based behavior change technology, but there are professional and financial contingencies that suggest otherwise.

The observation that there may be rewards for branding ABA procedures should not imply that there is anything inherently wrong with such an outcome. After all, when a procedure accumulates sufficient research support and clinical utility, it is natural that it should be described in textbooks and featured in convention programs. Those who publish this research or specialize in applying these procedures may justifiably reap professional benefits such as increased recognition, invitations to write book chapters, requests to deliver keynote addresses or workshops, and solicitations for clinical consulting.

On the other hand, efforts to establish a brand for an ABA procedure can present problems for the field when the legitimacy of the procedure has not been adequately established through research and its relation to other procedures is unclear. If a procedure is successfully promoted even though it is inadequately defined, poorly understood, or inconsistently effective, consumers will not be well served and the reputation of the field will suffer.

This illegitimate form of branding is especially worrisome when its focus is not a specific procedure but a more general clinical approach or treatment model. It’s an interesting exercise to identify the gradual branding of treatment models in the ABA literature and evaluate the sufficiency of their research support. Some may meet high standards; others may not.

We all understand that the proper foundation for the credibility and popularity of a procedure or treatment model lies in experimentation, not promotion. Whatever their origin, professional convictions must be filtered through methodologically sound research. The health of our field depends on authors of articles and textbooks representing this standard in discussions of procedures and clinical treatment models. In teaching from these materials, instructors should encourage budding practitioners to be critical consumers of ABA literature and continuing education programs. Allegiance to clinical procedures and models should emerge only from the accumulation of effective research literatures.


Carr, E. G., & Durand, V. M. (1985). Reducing behavior problems through functional
communication training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 18, 111-126.

Iwata, B. A., Pace, G. M., Cowdery, G. F., & Miltenberger, R. G. (1994). What makes
extinction work: An analysis of procedural form and function. Journal of
Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 131-144.

Lerman, D. C. & Iwata, B. A. (1996). Developing a technology for the use of operant
extinction in clinical settings: An examination of basic and applied research.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29, 345-382.

Mannsdorf, I. J. (1977). Reinforcer isolation: An alternative to subject isolation in
time-out from positive reinforcement. Journal of Behavior Therapy and
Experimental Psychiatry, 8, 391-393.

Spooner, F., Spooner, D., & Ulicny, G. R. (1986). Comparisons of modified backward
chaining: Backward chaining with leaps ahead and reverse chaining with
leaps ahead. Education and Treatment of Children, 9, 122-134.

Streifel, S. (1981). Behavior modification: Teaching a child to imitate. Austin, TX:


Defining, labeling, and branding ABA procedures

Leave a Reply

Website Protected by Spam Master

Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

Defining, labeling, and branding ABA procedures April 20, 2015