Understanding the differences between Positive Behaviour Support and Applied Behaviour Analysis

Understanding the differences between Positive Behaviour Support and Applied Behaviour Analysis


In recent years, there has been debate over whether Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is a considered a separate discipline from Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), or if PBS is simply an evolution from the current ABA practices.

Here is an overview of both practices, the differences, and the evolution:

The History of Applied Behaviour Analysis

ABA is based on the principles of learning and behaviour, derived from research, to improve socially significant behaviours. Socially significant behaviours are those that make a meaningful impact, including those that improve quality of life, health, and social inclusion, for the individuals, their family, and friends.

Historically, ABA did not have the best reputation in terms of some of their published applications and practices which were restrictive for people living with disability. However, ABA has since come a long way and has established a complete focus on the client. Their current gold standard practices incorporate scientific technologies into more natural learning settings across a wider variety of behaviours. The Ethics Code for Behaviour Analysts (BACB, 2020) ensures that high ethical standards are upheld for the individuals and families that are part of the ABA program.

The History of Positive Behaviour Support

PBS emerged in the mid 1980’s to early 1990’s in response to the growing concerns over the use of aversive procedures in ABA practices. The current framework was born as a result of the supposed focus of ABA’s consequence-based practices and the desire to produce more sustainable outcomes in natural settings. According to Carr and Sidener, (2002), the three distinct features of PBS include:

  1. Its operation from a person-centred values base
  2. Recognition of the individuality of each person,
  3. Programming towards meaningful outcomes through comprehensive assessment and multifaceted interventions

Proponents of PBS as being a distinct science would characterise PBS as concentrating on proactive strategies to prevent behaviours of concern, minimisation of the use of punishment based procedures or restrictive practices, inclusivity of the individual and families in targeting and evaluating interventions. PBS is also seen to broaden beyond the scope of ABA as it includes psycho-educational efforts and other interventions with caregivers. The PBS approach demands high levels of flexibility and stresses the use of natural assessment environments. It is argued that the procedures used by PBS practitioners have evolved beyond ABA given that the current scientific methods used by behaviour analysts are ineffective for meeting challenges involving inclusion and normalisation (Weiss et al., 2010).

Is PBS considered a Distinct Science?

Given the above, the idea that PBS is fully distinct from ABA is questionable. Any practice can be poorly implemented, even medicine. ABA has been in practice since the 1960s, therefore there has been considerable time for the science to evolve, develop rigour and incorporate ethics in its application. There is currently no credentialing body or process as arduous for PBS practitioners.

In terms of the other defining characteristics of PBS, contemplated, well-practiced ABA (i.e., designed/ implemented by those suitably qualified and experienced ) also seeks to involve the individual, allows for flexibility and incorporates psycho-education for key stakeholders in the individuals life. Where ABA diverges more noticeably is the ABAs use of demonstration of experimental control in its in application (e.g., use of well-designed functional analyses).

There has been some reluctance for many professionals in the field of ABA to accept PBS as being subsumed with ABA. Those who criticise PBS may state that it excludes the use of scientific applications with its focus on reinforcement-based procedures only.  For example, if a client presented with severe behaviours of concern that may cause lasting impairments, within the PBS standard, punishment-based procedures may not be considered despite it being the most effective treatment given the dangers present to the client.  Although behaviour analysts would always use reinforcement-based procedures as an intervention of first choice, punishment-based procedures may be necessary for the client. Therefore, some of ABA’s criticism centres around the PBS model being a less powerful intervention as a result of not fully adhering to all scientific principles.

What can ABA learn from PBS?

Rather than focusing on which discipline is better, it would be smarter for both practices to come to an agreement. ABA can learn a lot from what PBS has achieved in such a short amount of time. PBS has had such a rapid growth and acceptance from consumers, large organisations, and educational settings. This acceptance can be attributed to the way PBS markets its ethos and technologies. The language that PBS uses is also very appealing to consumers, examples include:

  • Person-centred approaches,
  • Empowering individuals to make decisions,
  • Involving family and friends,
  • Emphasising a client’s quality of life and the right to make choices.

These values whilst supporting key elements of the science can demonstrate a lot to the field of ABA in terms of how to promote our practice in more consumer-friendly way. This means that whatever the title of service, consumers are accessing evidence-based procedures and technologies with a client-centred focus.

Parents helping children with autism can be overwhelmed with the variety of treatment options, including ABA and PBS. Therefore, it is important that we find the similarities between both methods and understand that even though they may be separate methods, they can never be independent from one another. Behaviour analysts should embrace PBS as it incorporates the core principles of ABA and is becoming more widely accepted and adopted by service providers. At the end of the day, it is the underlying science and the desire to support and do what’s right by our clients that connects both practices.