What How Why of ABI blog header 2

The What, How, and Why of ABI


Making the Most of Activity-Based Intervention

Even if you don’t use the term activity-based intervention (ABI), you’re probably already experienced with it if you’re an AEPS user. Developed at the University of Oregon by the same authors who developed AEPS, ABI is an approach to intervention that helps children with disabilities (or at risk for disabilities) reach individual goals and acquire skills within the context of everyday activities and interactions. The interventions that are matched with the child’s goals in the AEPS curriculum are a good example of ABI in action.

In today’s post, adapted from An Activity-Based Approach to Early Intervention, Fourth Edition (coauthored by AEPS co-developers Diane Bricker and JoAnn Johnson), you’ll get a helpful breakdown of the ABI approach, its benefits, and its four key elements.


How ABI Works

Activity-based intervention assumes that the daily transactions children have with their social and physical environments provide much of the basis for their learning. Think of a “transaction” as an interaction with a bi-directional effect: A child does or says something, causing her parent to respond, which then leads the child to do or say differently the next time.

The logic behind ABI is that if a child or group of children has a specific developmental or therapeutic goal, they are more likely to reach it—and apply it successfully across real-world situations—if the goal is practiced through authentic transactions. Unlike an adult-directed intervention in which a child practices a skill out of context, activity-based interventions occur during a child-directed interaction, as part of daily routine, or embedded into a relevant activity in a group setting. Here are a few examples:

  • Instead of using flash cards to quiz Alberto on color recognition, Alberto’s dad asks him to identify whether cards are red or green as he flips them over during a board game. The next morning, Alberto’s dad gives him a choice of a red or green shirt.
  • Instead of having Mary—who has a fine motor skill delay—practice buttoning her doll’s dress over and over, her mom encourages her to button her own pajamas before bed each night.
  • Instead of asking a preschool class to sing a previously memorized song, the teacher asks them to suggest a set of songs to sing. The class helps the teacher count and prioritize the song selections through a lively group discussion. This benefits everyone, including the kids in the class with verbal delays.


Why Use ABI?

The benefits to using an ABI approach are clear, both for children and for programs:

  • ABI makes the most of a child’s motivation. Adult-directed interactions don’t always capitalize on a child’s motivation or the relevance of the activity in the child’s daily life. Activity-based intervention captures the essence of learning by linking new targeted skills to real-world routines and interactions that the child is naturally driven to take part in.
  • ABI is flexible. ABI can be used with individual children or groups of children. It can be applied easily across a range of settings, including preschools, Head Start programs, early intervention/early childhood special education classes, public and home child care programs, and in the home with parents, caregivers, or even siblings.
  • ABI can address multiple skills at once. ABI allows for practicing multiple skills during a single activity. Take this example from AEPS: A sandbox activity can be used to promote communication (“where is the shovel?”), social skills (playing side by side), adaptive skills (brushing sand off hands), motor skills (reaching and grasping), and cognitive skills (finding a buried toy).


What Elements Make Up ABI?

To create intervention activities that can be embedded authentically in a child’s transactions with their environment, consider the following four elements of ABI, which build to create a comprehensive approach. Understanding these elements will help you design activities suited for each child’s strengths, interests, and needs.

Element 1: Child-directed, routine, and planned activities

There are three types of activities used as the context for child–environment transactions:

  • Actions, play, or activities initiated or guided by the child are child-directed activities. These usually feel relevant and authentic because if a child is motivated to start and continue an activity, the activity probably has meaning and won’t require rewards to motivate the child.
  • Daily tasks like eating, dressing, bathing, and traveling are routine activities. Routine activities are a great way to practice functional skills in an authentic way. Try embedding learning opportunities into a child’s routine, like practicing phrases to express needs or getting dressed and undressed without help.
  • For a group of children, planned activities like those featured in the AEPS curriculum can be effective ways to practice target goals. These interventions can be designed in advance to offer a variety of learning opportunities—for example, an art project can require object manipulation and following instructions.


Element 2: Multiple and varied learning opportunities

By observing children and being aware of their current abilities and interests, it will be easier to create meaningful learning opportunities. It’s important to vary the type and frequency of learning opportunities because skills are not always used in the same way, in the same place, or among the same people. Kids must learn to adapt to their environment, and the best way to do this is to practice goals using all three activity types: child-directed, routine, and planned.


Element 3: Functional and generative goals

ABI is designed to help young children acquire both functional skills and generative goals. Functional skills are generally useful and relevant to a child’s daily life: opening doors, turning on faucets, being able to name objects used in play. Goals should also be generative, meaning they should be able to be used across settings, people, events, and objects, and the child should know how to modify their response as conditions change.


Element 4: Timely and integral feedback or consequences

ABI teaches children to associate classes of learning opportunities with classes of responses. You don’t want a child to expect a specific response, but rather to learn to manage a range of possible feedback. Feedback should be immediate, especially if a child has a disability, and should be as authentic as possible. If a child experiences a logical outcome of completing a certain activity—getting water after turning on the faucet, retrieving a desired object after walking to it—that outcome is a more effective reward than an artificial consequence, like being told “good job.”


ABI as Part of a Linked System

Activity-based intervention can be a very effective approach, but not if it’s practiced in isolation. To be successful, ABI must fit into a comprehensive linked system where it’s supported by and connected to other components that work together to promote developmental progress.

Here are the five components of a linked system:

  • Screening identifies children who need further assessment. (Screening tools like ASQ-3 and ASQ:SE-2 address this first component, and AEPS addresses the following four components.)
  • Assessment allows providers to collect data about a child’s strengths, interests, and skills, which later supports the planning of interventions.
  • Goal development comes as a result of the assessment, and guides the design and implementation of intervention.
  • Intervention within the ABI framework (as discussed above) encourages authentic opportunities for children to practice skills.
  • Progress monitoring with ABI requires weekly, quarterly, and annual observation so efforts can be adjusted as needed. (Web-based programs like AEPSi make this frequent data collection more manageable.)


Activity-based intervention is a flexible and highly effective way to help children reach individual goals and acquire new skills—and it’s a great fit with a linked system like AEPS. For more information about ABI, read An Activity-Based Approach to Early Intervention, Fourth Edition, by JoAnn (JJ) Johnson, Ph.D., Naomi L. Rahn, Ph.D. , Diane Bricker, Ph.D.