The ABA-ACT Model

Interest in Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACTr) within the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) has been growing steadily for several years. It comes as no surprise – Skinner’s aim from the beginning was that the science of behavior would develop technologies for addressing all behavior. It was a broad vision for which the first step was the establishment of strategies that address behavior responsive to direct influences from the environment.

A long range goal that Skinner wrote about was the further development of approaches to help people manage their more subtle behavior – their thinking and their reactions to emotion, memories, and bodily sensations. The aim was not to change these private events, but to address them so that people could behave more successfully in their lives.

Some of the things that influence these private events can at times be equally subtle. You and I think or feel things. Later we think about what we had thought and felt. The things we recall thinking about earlier are not actions in the present. Those earlier events are now part of the environment. They are products of our earlier responses to the world, and as products, they are stimuli with which we engage in the present. These products of earlier behavior (rules and memories, for example) may have indirect effects upon current behavior that could be important to address.

Subtle behavior and the indirect-acting influences of rules, emotions, memories, and bodily sensations upon socially important behaviors that can more easily be observed and measured are the stuff of ACTr. ACTr targets socially relevant behavior by undermining subtle interfering behaviors. The aim is to get behavior unstuck so that it can be shaped more easily by the direct-acting aspects of the environment are changed.

Behavior analysts working as psychotherapists developed acceptance and commitment therapy, which seems well suited to helping people in psychotherapy settings. It has been long in coming, but behavior analysts working in applied settings have labored to develop iterations of ACT that are suitable for use in ABA contexts.

In short, there are two important contingency streams. One influences behavior directly; the other’s effects are indirect.

Events that Directly
Influence Performance
– Things
– Events
Events that Indirectly
Influence Performance
– Thoughts
– Emotions
– Memories
– Bodily Sensations

Behavior analysts evaluate the effects of the environment upon behavior, so we examine environmental factors that come before and after socially relevant behavior. This framework of Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence is a powerful way to evaluate the relative contribution of things before and after behavior. The diagram above shows two different kinds of environmental influences.

Behavior analysts also classify behavior into categories influenced by different aspects of the environment. ACTr breaks behavior into two parts: that which is observable and measurable, and that which is more subtle or covert. These subtle behaviors leave behind products as described above but as behaviors, they can be taxonomized into six groups. When successful, these classes of private behavior include:


The ABA-ACT Model of ACTr can be used to design prevention activities that support healthy lifestyles and behavioral health. It can also be used to develop interventions to facilitate the effectiveness of other ABA efforts for decreasing interfering behavior. Very young children that have begun interacting with the world verbally, adolescents, adults, parents, and professional staff may all benefit from ACTr.

ACTr is an extension of ABA to address socially important behavior that is unresponsive to direct contingency management. Sometimes we get stuck; we cling to behaving in ways that provide us with only marginal benefits. At these times, we may benefit from strategies that serve to undermine private interfering behavior. The ABA-ACT Model is a framework from which to support socially important, observable, measurable behavior.

The ABA-ACT Model