To understand ABA you have to first learn that behavior is universal, including thoughts and emotions. There are 4 functions (reasons) for a behavior, which maintain responding (keep the behaviors going).
1. Attention (good or bad)
2. Access to Tangibles (toys, food, activities)
3. Escape/Avoidance (from something aversive)
4. Automatic/Sensory (it just feels good!)
In order to create a new habit (behavior), it must be reinforced. This means you have to figure out the function that will keep it going, and make that the basis of the reward. For example, you wouldn’t give a child candy (tangible) if their main reinforcer is attention.
Likewise, in order to decrease a behavior, you have find what the function is. Once you find the function you put the behavior under extinction. This means you stop reinforcing the problem behavior. THEN, you put in a new replacement behavior. With an emphasis that you make sure that the new behavior allows the person access to same function that the problem behavior does.
This is the most important part of getting rid of (decreasing to low levels) a problem behavior. The replacement behavior MUST give the person access to the same function of the problem behavior, or the problem behavior will always continue, because that’s the only way they know how to get what they really want. Think of it this way, if you really want a Pepsi, getting a Coke or a Sprite won’t make you stop wanting a Pepsi. People want what they want, they just have to learn how to get it appropriately.
Also, the replacement behavior has to be reinforced OFTEN! The person has to learn that the new behavior works. If the new behavior doesn’t work better than the old behaviors, what’s the point of learning a new behavior? People won’t do something that takes more effort to get the same result. It’s like Capitalism, the more money (reward) a person gets, for the least amount of work (effort) they have to do, the more they’ll keep doing that job. Even if they can get money somewhere else, why would they want a harder job for the same money or less?
People want what they want, they just have to learn how to get it appropriately.Jonathan Stevens
In regards to thoughts and emotions …
Within ABA, thoughts and emotions are also viewed as internal behaviors (private events), and follow the rules of behavior. Meaning, they are not causes of behaviors, and they are triggered by an antecedent event. Although we cannot see thoughts and behaviors, they are triggered within us by an antecedent event, resulting in consequences that are maintained by a function. The external (observable) behavior is the consequence of the internal (private) behavior, and the functioning maintaining this consequence is what is needed to make effective change in observable behaviors.
For example, hitting someone is not triggered by feeling angry; something triggered you being angry, which coincided with the hitting response you learned to pair with the feeling of anger. You somewhere down the line learned that hitting resulted in a reinforcing function when anger is felt, which is triggered. Since we cannot see “anger”, the observed chain of behaviors is an antecedent event triggered hitting behavior, which is maintained by a function.
Here is an article from Psychology Today, outlining the general basics of ABA. It describes what to expect from ABA therapy, what to look for in a therapist, and how it’s used. This article is very simplified and easy to comprehend, and should give you a good foundation going forward as you learn more.