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  • Golden Rule ABA

Stimulus Control

The term stimulus control means that a specific behavior occurs more often in the presence of a particular stimulus than in its absence.


What does that mean?


Jason has just settled into the driver’s seat of his new silver Mazda MX-5 Miata. He breathes in the new car smell as his playlist begins to play over the speakers. Jason checks all around him as he eases the car into gear and rolls off the sales lot with the top down. The sun is high in a blue sky and he has no pending appointments. The day is his.


Jason makes his way out of town and settles in to the joy of driving, secure in the knowledge that his tank is full. As he rounds a bend in the road, Jason sees a red stop sign ahead. As he tests the brakes, he likes what he feels as the car rolls smoothly to a stop. Jason’s behavior of stopping the car in the presence of the stop sign (stimulus) happens when the stimulus is presented. In the absence of a stop sign, Jason would not have stopped driving.


Stimulus control, which is what we want, is based on Jason being able to tell the difference (discriminate) between a red stop sign and a white speed limit sign. If Jason couldn’t discriminate between the two stimuli (stop sign and speed limit sign), he may not stop when he saw the stop sign or he might stop each time he saw a speed limit sign.


As you can clearly see, stimulus discrimination is critical to people moving through the world independently.


So, how do we teach stimulus control?


First, we teach stimulus discrimination. This starts with a student experience 2 different conditions. Condition 1: when a student touches a blue bear after being told to find “blue”, they receive reinforcement. Condition 2: when a student needs physical help to touch a blue bear after being told to find “blue”, they receive less reinforcement.


Behavior goes where reinforcement flows.

-Aubrey Daniels


Because the student receives more reinforcement for touching the blue bear when told to find “blue” than when the student needs help . . . they are more likely to touch the bear independently than with help.


YES! Stimulus Discrimination!


What if your student has behaviors that would interfere with touching a blue bear on command? We can create 2 conditions that they can work with.


Like what?


Like when a student is having a tantrum they can experience 2 conditions. For this example let’s say the tantrum includes crying with tears and stomping feet at the same time.

Condition 1: crying and stomping feet (student receives attention when mom looks at them – this is less reinforcement)

Condition 2: client takes a big breath OR stops stomping (student receives attention and praise “YES!” This is more reinforcement).


Please under


stand that what we think of as reinforcement may not be so we may have to try some things.


If the “more reinforcement” condition is not causing a change in the behavior then it isn’t BIG enough. Condition 2 in this scenario might need to be attention, praise and an M&M. If the student likes attention and praise and M&Ms this would be bigger reinforcement.




Right. What if the student is so busy with their tantrum behaviors, they don’t notice the M&M?




Then you can make the M&M louder. Put it into a metal bowl nearby so it makes a noise when you are giving the M&M. Each time the stomping stops or the student takes a big breath, instantly provide the sound of the M&M hitting the metal bowl and praise.


Too many M&Ms? You don’t have to give all of them. You can take a few out of the bowl when the student calms down. When they are calm down and the tantrum seems to be fading, they will receive an even bigger reinforcement – “Good job calming down! Here’s an M&M!”


2 conditions! One condition is better than the other.


The next time a tantrum erupts and the student hears the M&Ms hitting the bowl the tantrum will likely be shorter, unless M&Ms are not reinforcing.


Have a beautiful day!

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