Fundamentals of Applied Behavior Analysis: Part 1: Measurement


Cooper, Heron and Heward (2014) State:

Measurement (the application of quantitative labels to describe and differentiate natural events) provides the basis for all scientific discoveries and for the development and successful application of technologies derived from those discoveries. Direct and frequent measurements form the basis of applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysts use measurement to detect and compare the effects of various environmental arrangements on the acquisition, maintenance, and generalization of socially meaningful behaviors. (p.93)

According to Cooper, et. (2014)practitioners need measurements for the following reasons:

  • Measurement helps practitioners optimize their effectiveness.
  • The measure allows practitioners to verify the legitimacy of treatments presented as evidence-based.
  • The measure helps practitioners identify and end the use of treatments based on pseudoscience, fad, fad or ideology.
  • Measurement holds practitioners accountable to clients, consumers, employers and society.
  • Measurement helps practitioners achieve ethical standards.

Behavior is at the center of applied behavior analysis. Behavior analysts and those who work in the field identify behaviors and then seek to measure those specific behaviors. Behaviors can be measured by three fundamental properties which include repeatability, temporal extent and temporal locus.

Repeatability refers to how a behavior can be counted or how it can occur repeatedly over time. For example, if the behavior being measured is object throwing behavior, repeatability refers to the fact that you can count how many times the individual throws objects throughout the day or session.

Time span refers to how long a behavior takes. For example, if you want to measure crying behavior, you can measure crying duration by starting a timer at the first sound of crying and stopping the timer when the crying stops.

Temporal place refers to when does the behavior occur. For example, when measuring thrown objects, you can indicate the time when the behavior occurs, such as 8:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., and 11:00 a.m. This may inform you that the behavior only occurs in the morning (if you see the same pattern over several days).

Research in Applied Behavior Analysis can take place in a single case study or in a group design. For more information on research and detailed measurement and data collection strategies, see the book, Research methods in ABA.


Based on the three fundamental properties, several types of measurement can be used in applied behavior analysis. Here are a few:

Based on repeatability:

  • Number/Frequency: the number of occurrences of a behavior
  • Rate: the number of occurrences of a behavior per defined period of time
  • Speeding up: how the response rate changes over time

Based on time span:

  • Duration: how long a behavior occurs (how long)

Based on time location:

  • Response latency: how long it takes between the SD (direction or stimulus provided) and the behavior that begins to occur (for example, how long does it take from the time you give a child a direction to what ‘He begins to follow the direction.)
  • Interresponse time: how long between responses

Derived measures:

  • Percentage: a ratio, how many times out of 100 did the response occur
  • Trials by criterion: how many responses did it take to reach a predetermined criterion?

Definitional measures:

  • Topography: the physical shape or shape of a behavior
  • Magnitude: the strength or intensity with which a response is emitted

As you can see, there are many types of measurements that can be taken on behaviors of interest to behavior analysts.

You can use event registrationwhich is a measurement method that covers a variety of procedures used to identify the number of times a behavior occurs.

You can also use timing procedures which involve identifying various time-related aspects of a behavior, such as duration, response latency, and interresponse time.

Sampling time is another type of measurement that covers a range of procedures that allow you to measure behavior based on various time samples.

Additionally, you can measure behavior by permanent products. This means that you don’t actually have to observe the ongoing behavior. You can tell it happened because the behavior translates into some sort of product that others can observe. Homework is an example. Assuming kids don’t allow someone else to do it for them, you can tell a child has finished their homework without actually watching them do it, because you’ll see the homework completed after the behavior occurs. be produced.

Watch the videos below to learn more about ABA measurement.

All information taken from: Cooper, Heron and Heward (2014). Applied behavioral analysis. 2nd edition. Pearson Education Limited.

Image credit: CyberHades via Flickr


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