Home » ABA vs. CBT

ABA vs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)


For children with special needs, there are many treatment models to consider. Two of the most commonly used treatment models are Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

What is Applied Behavioral Analysis ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence-based treatment. Science researchers have reviewed the ABA and determined that it is useful and effective for serving children with special needs. Depending on the child’s condition, his or her environment, family, and other considerations, ABA may be the recommended treatment. ABA is a common treatment recommendation for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Behavior analysis is the scientific study of human behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis is a research-based approach. The basic concept of ABA is that behavior must be the focus when working with patients to improve specific behaviors such as social interaction, motor skills, and dexterity. According to the Behavior Analysis Certification Board, “… attempts to improve the human condition through behavior change (e.g., education, behavioral health treatment) will be most effective if behavior itself is the primary focus.”

How Does Applied Behavioral Analysis Work?

The goal of Applied Behavioral Analysis is to increase positive behaviors and reduce or eliminate harmful behaviors. Harmful behaviors include those that interfere with learning. Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is not a single thing, and indeed there is no single approach that fits all situations. ABA therapies include a wide range of techniques and treatments. ABA analysts work with clients by developing individual approaches. Analysts must get training and certification that equips them with principles of learning developed over many decades.

ABA therapy requires extensive and specialized education and training. ABA therapists must pass certification by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). A BCBA certified analyst conducts a functional behavior assessment (or FBA). The assessment can identify a negative behavior and determines a likely cause. Based on the assessment, the analyst develops an approach to study and treat the unwanted behavior. The treatment plans are treatment actions for the child’s specific situation. The elements of the analysis are described below.

  • What happens before a behavior?
  • What happens after a behavior occurs?
  • Develop positive reinforcement

The treatment plan will teach adaptive behaviors that can replace the negative conduct by playing the same role or purpose as the unwanted behavior. As the child learns the adaptive behavior, the analyst provides positive reinforcement. In a successful treatment, the new behaviors increase as the unwanted behaviors decrease.

ABA does not rely on general descriptions of an unwanted behavior. General terms like angry or aggressive do not reveal enough detail to measure the incidents. ABA uses specific definitions of behaviors such as the specific acts, duration, and interval. For example, rather than a general term like anger episode, a description might be an episode of kicking, punching, and scratching that lasted about two-minutes and repeated in about one hour.

The concept of reliable measurement (RM) is essential to ABA, and it adds the vital element of measurement. The measurement can apply across the course of treatment to demonstrate the effectiveness of the changes produced by the therapy. RM can indicate the need to amend or correct a plan of treatment. 

What Is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)?

CBT or Cognitive Behavior Therapy is form of counseling in which a trained therapist uses talk therapy to help children learn and improve behaviors. CBT has been effective in developing techniques in children for managing feelings, expressing emotions, and reducing conflicts with family and people in school or other settings.

CBT is frequently used to help children overcome a lack of emotional control; they can learn techniques to manage feelings. Children can gain skills in communicating about their emotions and learn to avoid conflicts in social settings. Many children get CBT to learn better ways to cope with stress.

CBT has some important uses; cognitive behavior therapists treat depression and anxiety. CBT is one of the proven effective treatments for conditions caused by a patient’s thought processes. Counseling builds awareness that negative thoughts are part of the problem’s underlying causes. While CBT is useful for persons with health issues or a mental disorder, the technique also helps people manage the unusual stresses that occur in normal life. CBT can empower individuals to manage life situations and overcome fears and negativity.

How Does CBT or Cognitive Behavior Therapy work?

CBT uses a close relationship of counselor to patient. The counselor is usually a psychotherapist or trained therapist. The core idea of Cognitive Behavior Therapy is that negative thoughts contribute to negative emotions and harmful behaviors. The typical course of treatment is a set of structured counseling sessions. The sessions involve discussing the negative thoughts and their impacts on the child’s life. 

Through counseling, the child develops an essential understanding of the impact of his or her thought process. The sessions build an awareness of the connection between negative thoughts and behaviors that cause harm or bad results. Counseling helps reveal inaccurate thinking or perceptions that cause negative emotions. The child can learn to understand challenging or difficult situations in an accurate and more positive way.

Emotional pain is a risk associated with CBT counseling. When intervening to disrupt unwanted behaviors, the counseling may dig into areas that the child would rather avoid. The avoidance usually protects areas of emotional sensitivity. During counseling in sensitive areas, the child may experience emotional pain or discomfort.

The emotional pain can often surface during a process known as exposure therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, exposure therapy can reveal suppressed fears. In the short term exposing them may cause pain, but if left alone, the hidden fears can worsen over time.

Comparing ABA and CBT

Scientific treatment use evidence gathered over many decades of experiments. The knowledge gained can be tested under many circumstances and conditions. When the evidence supports a treatment or technique, then it is an evidence-based treatment. The evidence demonstrates effectiveness and reliability. Both ABA and CBT are accepted as evidence-based practices.

The test of whether one or another treatment is best depends upon the child’s individual situation. The factors include family, social environments, and medical history. Based on your child’s situation, an assessment might recommend ABA, CBT, or some combination of these approaches. ABA has a demonstrated record of success in treating autism spectrum disorder to improve social interactions, add skills, and reduce unwanted behaviors.