Let’s Learn ABA: Imitation

We’ve heard the phrase Learning is doing and doing is learning. But have you considered that learning is also copying?! Growing up, many of us learned to do the tasks we do today from watching others and copying them. For me, I know how to make some of my grandma’s famous recipes because I watched her do it and copied what she did!

This same principle also falls into a Verbal Operant category known as Imitation. Most are familiar with the word Imitation and its definition is very similar in ABA language:

Modeling own similar response within 2 seconds of a physical movement emitted by another person

Imitation is a foundational skill that opens the door for vast learning opportunities. When a child has the ability to imitate, they have an unlimited amount of things they can learn from others. Whether that be physical imitations, words, phrases, skills, there are no restrictions!

Imitation and Echoics 

If you have read our Echoics entry with the Verbal Operants series, you may be asking how these two work together. Echoics are a form of imitation for verbal or vocal responses whereas imitation includes motor movements as well. Imitation of motor movements are important when teaching sign language, responding to others, as well as understanding skills around them. When an individual learns to imitate, they also learn to learn without direct instruction!!

Imitation in ABA

Like other ABA programs, with imitation we start with simple, small skills. For example, a program may start with a simple finger movement and build upon that until reaching writing skills.  Additionally, we have the opportunity to intertwine multiple areas into imitation! We may be addressing fine motor skills (pinching, small finger movements, writing, etc.), gross motor skills (whole body movements, play skills, etc.), or even adaptive living behaviors such as washing hands, cooking, and more. Imitation is a very important foundational skill that opens up many opportunities for our learners, including essential social skills to carry into their everyday life!

We often hear our therapist saying “Do this!” when working on imitation skills. Such as “do this (clapping)” and the kiddo responding with a clap. Building these skills not only works to increase different motor movements or words, but also works to help a child mimic others within their natural environment.

If we can teach imitation skills, a child is more likely to generalize these skills into their home setting where they gain more skills by watching siblings or parents!


By: Heidi Mann, BCBA, Outreach Consultant

Categories: Let’s Learn ABA