For those of you who don’t know, “ABA” stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA Therapy is most often used on children who have Autism, but it’s also with children who are neurotypical.

For three years, I used various forms of ABA therapy on children, and I thought it was the one, true, scientific method for changing behavior. I really did. In part, that was because I hadn’t gone through enough educational programs yet to learn the actual science. However, the majority of my misunderstanding came from a lack of practical application over a long period of time.

See, when you’re not licensed for ABA therapy, but you work in the behavior world, you’re taught how to use it by the people who are higher in the chain of command than you are. Those who are licensed give you a simplified, watered-down version of ABA, and then they tell you how and when to implement it.

And when it works, you feel like it’s successful.

The problem for me is that when ABA “works,” it only means you’ve successfully manipulated a child into doing what you want them to do. You’ve discovered what they want most, and you’ve used it to meet your agenda. Which, for a long time, I thought was okay because “kids don’t really know what’s best for them.”

Maybe not, but manipulation isn’t the way to get them there.

Let me explain what the process of ABA looks like really quickly, just in case you don’t know.

First, you observe a child and spend time with them for long enough to be able to identify their “function of behavior.” There are four functions of behavior, which basically means there are four things a person could be trying to get when they make any decision. They’re either seeking attention, seeking access to something, seeking sensory input, or seeking escape/avoidance from something.

If you think through even your own behaviors, all of your choices generally come down to one of those four motivators. Even when we go to work in the morning, we’re seeking access to something (a paycheck) or seeking attention (success).

When working with kids who are a part of the “behavior” world, if there even is such a thing, your job is to identify what they’re motivated by and then take it away from them so that they’ll try to earn it in appropriate ways. That’s the second step in ABA work. Sounds fine, right? I mean, that’s basically like taking away our kids’ toys when they misbehave and then making them earn their toys back with good behavior.

No big deal… right?

The problem, for me, is that ABA doesn’t go beyond the WHAT of what they’re motivated by to think about the WHY of what they’re motivated by. I’ve heard a lot of people who practice ABA say things like, “It doesn’t matter why they want it. It only matters that they do. It’s a therapist’s job to deal with the ‘why.’ It’s our job to make the behavior stop.”

Excuse me for saying that I think that’s a bunch of garbage. The why DOES matter because they’re people. Not tools.

When the kids that I work with are “seeking attention,” they’re actually seeking relationship. And why are they seeking relationship? Because that’s missing from their life. And if you’ll take a moment to remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, feeling a sense of belonging and love is the third most important need in a child’s life, right behind food and safety.

That’s right. Feeling loved comes RIGHT after food, water, nourishment, and safety. It’s freaking important.

When they’re seeking attention, they’re seeking far more than that, and there’s a reason for it. We can force the “behavior” to stop if we want to, but the problem really won’t be solved until we fix the root issue.

When the kids that I work with are “seeking access to something,” they’re really seeking security. They don’t trust the adults around them to provide what they want/need so they try to get it for themselves.

It may just look like a toy to you, but to them, it brings comfort or joy. When they don’t find enough comfort or joy in the people around them, they find it in belongings. Where you might see selfishness or materialism, there is actual a misplaced sense of devotion. It’s our job to teach them how to find comfort and joy in people instead of things.

Again, we can stop the behavior by removing the thing they’re trying to get access to, but it doesn’t really solve the issue. Kids aren’t just tally marks on a behavioral observation sheet.

Yes, we do want unhealthy behaviors to decrease, but not because we’re holding what they want over their heads while we wait for them to jump high enough. We want their unhealthy behaviors to decrease because the leak has been fixed, deep down in their brains. We want them to learn that they are loved, safe, valued, and consistently provided for.

It’s the same with seeking sensory input (e.g. a child with Autism biting their hand because they need the stimulation to feel calm) and with seeking escape or avoidance (e.g. a child being “bad” in class to get out of a test). You figure out what they want, you take it away, and then you keep it away until they try to get it the way that you want them to.

It’s a game of trying to make kids more socially acceptable. They almost never get a say in what THEY think their goals should be. Adults make those goals for them, and then enforce those goals in the ways they see fit.

Because the third part of ABA work is letting the child know that you can outwait them when it comes to giving back what they want. If that means sitting in an empty room with NOTHING in front of you for five hours, then you do it. If that means skipping lunch until they’ll say the words, “I will be safe,” then you do it. If that means presenting them with the same piece of schoolwork every single day, for thirteen days, until they take that test, then you do it. If that means putting your hands over the top of an Autistic child’s hands and forcing them to put the blocks where they go, then you do it.

It’s a game of stubbornness where the child eventually learns that they’ll lose.

It isn’t a game of asking why they don’t want to take the test, why they want attention, why they need sensory input, or why they’re trying to steal all the bouncy balls out of your supply closet. I feel ashamed that I ever participated in it or thought that it made sense.

After working with foster children, now I understand how harmful (or, rather, pointless) those practices can be. They completely miss the point.

Using methods like TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) or Empower to Connect methods are so much more effective. It DOES matter that they’re too hungry to think through what you’ve asked them. It DOES matter that they think toys are better than people. It DOES matter that they’re biting themselves because it soothes them. It DOES matter that they avoid tests which they know they’ll fail at.

All of those things matter. And above all, a relationship with that child where trust can be built matters. We can’t teach them to be healthy adults by manipulating into behaving differently. We TEACH them to be healthy adults by showing them how to treat others and sticking with them even when they can’t make good choices.