The “ABC’s” of Behavior

Breaking down the ABCs of Behavior

Every behavior has something that comes before it and something that comes after it. Some behaviors we want to encourage more of, like asking for help. Other behaviors we want to decrease, such as throwing. When you understand the ABCs of behavior you can better gather the right tools to teach your child how to get what they need.

First, let’s break down what ABC’s are.

  • A stands for antecedent. This is the event, action, or circumstance that comes before a behavior.
  • B stands for behavior.
  • C stands for consequence. This is the response or action that comes directly after a behavior occurs.

Behavior analysts use something called ABC data. This just means they look at all the before and afters of a behavior to determine why a behavior is occurring. You may hear your BCBA say they are looking at the function of behavior, which is a fancy way of saying they are looking at “why a behavior is happening.”

There are two common functions of behaviors that are seen frequently in children. They include:

  • Getting preferred items. Such as attention, items, or sensations.
  • Avoiding less preferred things. Such as interactions, activities, or settings.

We now have a little idea about what ABC’s of behaviors means in a definition sense, but how do they work? Well, it is all about patterns of antecedents and consequences. Changing the Antecedent, the Consequence, or both can lead to a change in the Behaviors. Altering antecedents can set your child up for success. Changing consequences can reinforce skills and behaviors. Together these can help increase new skills and decrease challenging behaviors.

Let’s talk about some examples to fully understand the ABCs of behavior.

A: Baby sees milk bottle.

B: Baby cries.

C: Baby gets milk.

This super simple example is one most parents can relate to. Your kids start understanding what they can do to get needs met as soon as they are born. As a parent we look at the pattern, in this case crying when seeing milk, as a way to understand what our child needs.

Now let’s look at a slightly more challenging example. We are only going to look at the A and C to start.

A: ABA therapist places a matching sequence cards in front of child.

B:  Child screams and throws the cards on the floor.

We can see that the event of placing work in front of the child has created a behavior of swiping the items to the floor, which may indicate the child does not want to complete the task. There are two examples of ways we can approach the Consequence of this behavior.

  1. The ABA therapist can pick up the cards and let the child play with a preferred toy.
  2. Can have the child pick up the items and try the task again.

The first scenario may show the child that when they do not want to complete an activity and they throw it to the floor, it is ok because it will be removed and something they enjoy is given to them. The second scenario can show the child that throwing will not get them out of the task. Instead, they are asked to try again after cleaning up what they threw. These are not the only ways to handle this particular scenario but are examples of what can be taught.

Looking for patterns in behaviors and guiding your child to appropriate responses can be tricky. Here are some tips to working with your child on their functions of behavior.

  • Use clear and simple direction with your child.
  • Only complete a couple steps at a time.
  • Use visual supports.
  • Change consequences to what feedback you want to be learned.
  • If a task is not completed or appears to be too hard, complete it with your child to teach them how to do it.
  • Make sure to have your child complete tasks and requests that are easy for them too.
  • Give them lots of praise and extra reinforcement for things that you know are challenging for them.