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What is Happy Relaxed Engaged in ABA?

HRE is a more recent term in ABA that says a learner should be happy, relaxed, and engaged during ABA therapy. But what exactly does happy, relaxed, engaged mean? 

What is Happy, Relaxed, Engaged?

Dr. Gregory Hanley states in his paper, A Perspective on Today’s ABA, that individuals with autism learn better through joy. He says that we should have conversations with our learners about what they love and hate, and use that information to create a context in which they feel happy, relaxed, and engaged during their sessions. 

This helps them to feel safe and in control. So, our functional assessments need to incorporate practical control periods where students are happy, relaxed, and engaged. 

I recently Googled this term in order to give more information to some therapists I work with. And there’s really not a lot of content out there that expands on this terminology. We just assume that everybody knows what happy is, what relaxed is, and what engaged is. But that’s not always the case. So let’s break down those terms. 


So first of all, let’s look at “happy”. As ABA professionals, we need to get to a place where our student is really comfortable and prepared to learn. What does this look like? They’re content – they may be smiling or laughing – they are definitely not crying or trying to leave the situation. They desire to be in the moment. Period. That’s happy. But sometimes, people can be happy but they’re not always relaxed. 


What does “relaxed” look like? The individual is calm and not at all anxious. If you know the Zones of Regulation, they’re in the green zone. 

Now, let’s say you have a student that your therapist says is relaxed, but when he’s playing with something he gets really revved up. That’s not actually relaxed. We want the student to be calm, cool, and collected. No anxiety, no precursors to challenging behavior. That’s what relaxed means. 


Finally, what does “engaged” look like? Actual engagement means participation in activities. If there are toys around and the student is looking at them but not interacting with them (they may or may not be engaging in some stereotypy or self-stimulatory behavior), that is not engagement. True engagement means that your learner is actually interacting with the toys around them. This is also true for activities other than toys.  People can be engaged in any part of the environment around them.  Maybe they’re engaged with you or with the therapist. 

If a student is supposed to be on a movement break, but they’re just standing there doing nothing or engaging in stereotypy, that’s not engaged either. Watch and understand what true engagement looks like for your student and then have a conversation about it with your team so everyone can learn and adjust as needed.

Why is Happy, Relaxed, Engaged Important?

According to Dr. Hanley, when a learner is “happy, relaxed, and engaged”, you can show them that you hear them, see them, and are there for them. He says that a happy, relaxed, and engaged learner is less likely to engage in severe problem behavior, which will allow you to empower them and teach them more challenging skills.

We hope this gives you more insight into HRE. Get our free downloadable resource on the terminology HRE below!

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