What are Motivating Operations in ABA?

If you are a parent or caregiver of someone with autism, you may have heard the term "motivating operations" used in the context of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). But what exactly does it mean?

Ruben Kesherim
July 3, 2024

What are Motivating Operations in ABA?

Understanding Behavior in ABA

In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), understanding behavior is fundamental to effectively supporting individuals with autism and related conditions. By gaining insights into the underlying principles of behavior, ABA professionals can develop targeted interventions to promote positive change. Two key concepts in ABA that contribute to this understanding are Motivating Operations (MO) and Extinction.

The Importance of Understanding Behavior

Understanding behavior is crucial in ABA as it allows for the identification of the factors that influence an individual's actions and reactions. By analyzing behavior patterns, ABA professionals can determine the function or purpose behind specific behaviors. This understanding helps guide decision-making regarding interventions and strategies employed to shape behavior positively.

Introduction to Motivating Operations and Extinction

Motivating Operations (MO) and Extinction are two essential concepts in ABA that contribute to our understanding of behavior and guide intervention strategies.

Motivating Operations (MO) refer to the environmental variables or events that alter the value or effectiveness of specific consequences. In simpler terms, MOs change the significance or desirability of a consequence, which, in turn, impacts behavior. These operations can be categorized as establishing operations (EOs) or abolishing operations (AOs), depending on whether they increase or decrease the value of a consequence.

Extinction, on the other hand, is a procedure used in ABA to decrease or eliminate a targeted behavior by withholding the reinforcing consequences that previously maintained it. During extinction, the individual no longer receives the reinforcement that previously reinforced the behavior, leading to a decrease in the occurrence of that behavior over time.

By understanding the principles of MO and extinction, ABA professionals can tailor interventions to effectively modify behavior and promote positive change.

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Motivating Operations (MO)

In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), motivating operations (MO) play a significant role in understanding and influencing behavior. Motivating operations are factors that influence the value or effectiveness of a reinforcer, making behavior more or less likely to occur. Let's delve into the definition and types of motivating operations in ABA.

Definition and Explanation of MO

Motivating operations are environmental variables or events that alter the value of a reinforcer and subsequently affect behavior. They can either establish or abolish the reinforcing value of a stimulus, making it more or less appealing to an individual. In simple terms, motivating operations set the stage for behavior to occur or not occur by changing the significance of consequences.

There are two main types of motivating operations: establishing operations (EO) and abolishing operations (AO). Establishing operations increase the reinforcing value of a stimulus, making it more motivating. On the other hand, abolishing operations decrease the reinforcing value, reducing the motivation to engage in a particular behavior.

Types of MO in ABA

  1. Establishing Operations (EO): EO makes a reinforcer more appealing or valuable, thereby increasing the likelihood of behavior. There are two subtypes of EO:
  • Tangible Reinforcer Establishing Operation: This type of EO involves making a specific item or activity more desirable. For example, if a child loves playing with a specific toy, the presence of that toy can serve as an establishing operation to increase the child's motivation to engage in behavior that may lead to access to the toy.
  • Social Reinforcer Establishing Operation: This type of EO involves increasing the value of social interactions or attention. For instance, a child who craves social interaction may be more motivated to engage in appropriate communication behaviors to gain attention from others.
  1. Abolishing Operations (AO): AO reduces the reinforcing value of a stimulus, making it less motivating. There are also two subtypes of AO:
  • Tangible Reinforcer Abolishing Operation: This type of AO involves decreasing the appeal or availability of a reinforcer. For example, if a child has been repeatedly given access to a specific food item, satiation may occur, reducing the reinforcing value of that food item.
  • Social Reinforcer Abolishing Operation: This type of AO involves reducing the availability or desirability of social interaction or attention. For instance, if a child has been reprimanded or scolded following a specific behavior, they may be less motivated to engage in that behavior in the future to avoid the aversive consequences.

Understanding the different types of motivating operations is crucial in designing effective behavior intervention strategies. By manipulating motivating operations, behavior analysts can shape behavior by increasing or decreasing its occurrence. It's important to note that while motivating operations influence behavior, they do not directly cause behavior; they modify the value of consequences and alter the likelihood of behavior occurring.


In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), extinction is a behavioral procedure used to decrease or eliminate a target behavior by removing the reinforcement that previously maintained it. This procedure is based on the principle that behaviors that are no longer reinforced will eventually decrease or cease to occur.

Definition and Explanation of Extinction

Extinction is the process of withholding or removing the reinforcer that was previously maintaining a behavior. When a behavior is no longer reinforced, individuals may initially increase their efforts to obtain the reinforcement. This is known as an extinction burst. However, if the behavior consistently fails to produce the desired reinforcement, it will eventually decrease in frequency, intensity, or duration.

Extinction is not simply ignoring or passively disregarding a behavior. It requires consistency and an understanding of the function and consequences of the behavior. It is important to note that extinction can lead to an initial increase in the frequency or intensity of the behavior before it decreases. This temporary increase is known as an extinction burst.

How Extinction Works in ABA?

In ABA, extinction is applied systematically and with precision to target behaviors that are no longer desirable or functional. The goal is to reduce or eliminate these behaviors by removing the reinforcers that were previously maintaining them. Extinction is most effective when combined with reinforcement of alternative, appropriate behaviors.

To implement extinction, it is essential to identify the specific reinforcer that is maintaining the target behavior. This requires careful observation and analysis of the behavior and its antecedents and consequences. Once the reinforcer is identified, it is systematically removed or withheld when the target behavior occurs.

For example, if a child engages in tantrums to gain attention, implementing extinction would involve systematically ignoring the tantrum behavior and not providing attention or reinforcement during tantrum episodes. By consistently withholding the attention that previously reinforced the tantrums, the child learns that tantrums no longer produce the desired outcome.

It is important to note that extinction can be challenging and may initially result in an increase in the target behavior. This can be difficult for parents and caregivers to endure. However, with consistency and appropriate support, the target behavior will eventually decrease as the individual learns that it is no longer effective in obtaining the desired outcome.

Understanding the principles and procedures of extinction is crucial for parents and caregivers supporting individuals with challenging behaviors. By working closely with ABA professionals and implementing extinction strategies effectively, parents can play a vital role in supporting behavior management and promoting positive change. Collaborating with ABA professionals can also ensure that the use of extinction is implemented ethically and in the best interest of the individual.

The Relationship Between MO and Extinction

In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), understanding the relationship between Motivating Operations (MO) and Extinction is crucial for effectively managing behavior. MO refers to environmental variables that alter the reinforcing or punishing effectiveness of certain stimuli, while extinction involves the removal of reinforcement to reduce the occurrence of a behavior.

How MO Influences Extinction?

Motivating Operations can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of extinction procedures. When a specific MO increases the value of a reinforcer associated with a behavior, the absence of that reinforcer during extinction may lead to an increase in the frequency or intensity of the behavior. On the other hand, when an MO decreases the value of a reinforcer, the removal of that reinforcer during extinction may result in a quicker reduction of the behavior.

For example, let's consider a child who engages in tantrums to gain attention from their parents. If the child's attention-seeking behavior is reinforced consistently, the MO for attention is high. When extinction is implemented by withholding attention during tantrums, the child may initially escalate their behavior to obtain the desired attention. However, if the MO for attention decreases over time, the child's tantrums may decrease more rapidly during extinction.

To effectively apply extinction procedures in ABA, it is crucial to consider the influence of MO. A thorough functional analysis conducted by a trained ABA professional can help identify the relevant MO and guide the development of an appropriate behavior intervention plan.

Examples of MO and Extinction in ABA

Understanding how MO and extinction interact can be better grasped through some examples commonly seen in ABA practice:

  1. Tangible Reinforcement: If a child engages in challenging behavior to obtain a desired item, the MO for that item is high. Implementing extinction by withholding access to the item during the occurrence of the behavior can lead to an initial increase in the behavior. However, as the MO for the item decreases, the behavior is likely to diminish during extinction.
  2. Escape Reinforcement: In situations where a child engages in challenging behavior to escape from an undesired task or situation, the MO for escape is high. Implementing extinction by not allowing escape during the occurrence of the behavior may initially result in an escalation of the behavior. However, as the MO for escape decreases, the behavior is expected to decrease during extinction.

Understanding the relationship between MO and extinction is essential for designing effective behavior intervention plans that target challenging behaviors.

ABA professionals work closely with families to identify and address these factors to promote positive behavior change. Collaborating with ABA professionals can provide valuable guidance and support in managing behavior effectively. Additionally, reinforcing positive behaviors through strategies like positive behavior support can further enhance the effectiveness of behavior management.

Applying MO and Extinction in ABA

Once you have a solid understanding of motivating operations (MO) and extinction in the context of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it's important to explore strategies for implementing extinction procedures and considerations for effective implementation.

Strategies for Implementing Extinction Procedures

Implementing extinction procedures effectively requires careful planning and consistent implementation. Here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Functional Assessment: Before implementing extinction, it is crucial to conduct a thorough functional assessment to understand the function of the problem behavior. This assessment helps identify the environmental factors that may be maintaining the behavior, allowing for the development of an effective extinction plan.
  2. Consistency: Consistency is key when implementing extinction procedures. It is essential to ensure that the extinction plan is consistently applied across all individuals involved in the person's care, including parents, caregivers, and ABA professionals. Consistency helps to prevent inadvertently reinforcing the problem behavior and promotes the learning of new, appropriate behaviors.
  3. Identifying Reinforcement: During the extinction process, it is important to identify and eliminate any sources of reinforcement that may inadvertently be maintaining the problem behavior. This includes identifying and removing any attention, access to preferred items or activities, or escape from undesired tasks that may be reinforcing the behavior. By removing these reinforcers, the motivation for engaging in the problem behavior decreases.
  4. Replacement Behavior: To effectively replace the problem behavior, it is crucial to teach and reinforce an alternative behavior that serves the same function. By providing the individual with an appropriate and functional alternative behavior, you can redirect their behavior towards a more desirable outcome.

Considerations for Effective Implementation

When implementing extinction procedures, there are several important considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Professional Guidance: It is highly recommended to seek guidance from qualified ABA professionals who can provide individualized guidance and support throughout the implementation process. ABA professionals can assist in developing a comprehensive behavior plan, monitoring progress, and making adjustments as needed.
  2. Monitoring and Data Collection: Regularly monitoring and collecting data on the target behavior is essential to evaluate the effectiveness of the extinction procedures. This data helps track progress, make data-driven decisions, and modify the intervention, if necessary. ABA professionals can guide parents in setting up data collection systems and analyzing the data collected.
  3. Generalization: It's important to consider generalization, which refers to the individual's ability to display the desired behavior across various settings, people, and contexts. Generalization training should be incorporated to ensure that the individual can maintain the appropriate behavior even outside the specific intervention setting.
  4. Parental Support: Parents play a crucial role in supporting behavior management and the implementation of extinction procedures. Collaborating closely with ABA professionals, parents can effectively reinforce appropriate behaviors, provide consistent expectations and consequences, and create a supportive environment for their child. Reinforcement and positive behavior support are integral components of parental involvement.

By employing these strategies and considerations, parents and caregivers can ensure the successful implementation of extinction procedures as part of an overall behavior management plan in ABA therapy. Remember, seeking guidance from ABA professionals is essential to tailor interventions to the unique needs of the individual and achieve positive outcomes.

The Role of Parents in Supporting Behavior Management

Parents play a crucial role in supporting behavior management for individuals receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. By collaborating with ABA professionals and implementing effective strategies, parents can create a supportive environment that promotes positive behavior change. Two key aspects of this role are collaborating with ABA professionals and understanding the importance of reinforcement and positive behavior support.

Collaborating with ABA Professionals

Collaboration between parents and ABA professionals is essential for successful behavior management. ABA professionals have the expertise and training to design and implement effective behavior intervention plans. By working together, parents and professionals can ensure consistency in implementing strategies and reinforcing positive behaviors.

Through open communication, parents can provide valuable insights into their child's behavior patterns, preferences, and strengths. This information helps ABA professionals tailor interventions to meet the specific needs of the individual. Additionally, parents can actively participate in training sessions provided by ABA professionals to gain a deeper understanding of the strategies being used and how to reinforce them effectively.

Collaboration between parents and ABA professionals creates a unified approach to behavior management, which maximizes the potential for positive outcomes. It empowers parents to actively participate in their child's progress and fosters a supportive environment both at home and during therapy sessions.

Reinforcement and Positive Behavior Support

Reinforcement and positive behavior support are fundamental principles in ABA that parents can implement to promote behavior change and skill acquisition. Reinforcement involves providing consequences that increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again in the future. Positive behavior support focuses on identifying and reinforcing desired behaviors rather than solely focusing on reducing problem behaviors.

To effectively use reinforcement, parents should identify reinforcers that are meaningful to their child. These can include verbal praise, access to preferred activities, tokens, or small rewards. It is important to note that what is reinforcing for one individual may not be for another, so understanding the specific preferences of the child is essential.

When implementing positive behavior support, parents should focus on proactive strategies to prevent unwanted behaviors and promote positive alternatives. This can include setting up the environment to minimize triggers for problem behaviors, teaching new skills, and providing clear instructions and expectations. By emphasizing positive behaviors and consistently reinforcing them, parents can create a supportive context for behavior change.

By actively collaborating with ABA professionals and implementing reinforcement and positive behavior support strategies, parents can enhance the effectiveness of behavior management efforts. This partnership between parents and professionals ensures a comprehensive approach that maximizes the potential for positive behavior change in individuals receiving ABA therapy.


How are motivating operations different from antecedents and consequences?

While antecedents and consequences can influence behavior, motivating operations specifically alter the value of a consequence at a given moment in time. Antecedents set the occasion for the behavior to occur, while consequences follow the behavior.

Can MOs be used with all individuals?

Yes, MOs can be used with all individuals regardless of age or ability level. However, the specific MO manipulations used may vary depending on the individual's preferences and needs.

Are there any ethical considerations when using MO manipulations?

Yes, it is important for behavior analysts to ensure that any MO manipulations used are ethical and do not cause harm to the individual. Additionally, it is important to monitor any unintended effects of the manipulation and adjust accordingly.

Can MOs be used in conjunction with other ABA techniques?

Yes, MOs can be used in combination with other ABA techniques such as reinforcement and punishment. In fact, understanding MOs can enhance the effectiveness of these techniques by manipulating the value of their associated consequences.

Can MOs help with more complex behaviors such as language acquisition or social skills?

Yes, by manipulating the value of language or social interaction as a consequence, behavior analysts can use MOs to increase motivation for these types of behaviors. This can lead to more rapid progress in developing these skills.


Motivating operations are an important concept in ABA. By understanding how MOs work and how they can be manipulated, behavior analysts can effectively increase or decrease the likelihood of a particular behavior occurring. As a parent or caregiver, understanding the role of MOs in ABA can help you better understand your child's behavior and the strategies being used to support their development.


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