20 Nov 2017

A scientific approach to behaviour change

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:17 pm on 20 November 2017

If you're having trouble disciplining a child, be very specific about what you want them to do and reinforce the behaviour you want to see, says Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) specialist Neil Martin.

asian girl crying

Photo: Aikawa Ke / Flickr

ABA is a scientific approach to understanding and changing human behaviour - defined as everything a person does.

Even though it's best known in relation to autism education, it can be applied to almost anything, Martin says.

Currently, ABA principles are being used for to combat addiction and terrorism and even encourage Romanian villagers to recycle plastic water bottles.

If you suspect your child has autism, get a diagnosis as soon as you can, Martin says.

"Once the parent realises their child has some specific skill deficits, that's the point at which one could and should start."

ABA work typically starts with intensive one-to-one teaching that addresses the child's skill deficits – in the home if they're preschool age.

Initially, the work is on 'learning to learn' skills: "how to sit and attend, give good eye contact, listen to instructions, follow instructions" ... moving through matching and imitating to much more complex skills.

Eventually, the ABA approach won't be needed, will fade out completely and the school will take over where the parent has left off.

To employ ABA principles generally in the home, parents need to commit to being systematic in their approach to discipline, Martin says.

"If you really want your child to sit and have dinner with you rather than sitting in front of their iPad or whatever it happens to be, then food is available while they sit at the table and not under other circumstances. If they want to eat, they come to sit at the table to eat. It could be as simple as that."

Be very specific about what you want the child to do and make sure that when they engage in that particular behaviour "catch them being good" and affirm them for that, he says.

Dr Neil Martin is in New Zealand for a week-long Applied Behaviour Analysis event hosted by The University of Auckland.

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