The ABCs of Behaviors

Trying to understand the reason behind a child’s behavior can seem like navigating through a forest blindfolded, while avoiding getting caught by hanging vines and poison ivy.

The ABCs of analyzing behaviors can offer a map through this maze, and shed some light on why challenging behaviors happen. Let’s have a quick look at what the different letters mean.

A = Antecedent or what happens prior to the behavior.

This could be an event immediately prior to the behavior, such as being denied a request. Often, it is something that may not be immediately apparent. Children are often sensitive to their environment, especially children whose sensory profile differ from the "norm". A slight change in the physical environment may set off a chain of reactions that lead to a melt down. Physiological factors such as a lack of sleep, being hungry and tired often lower a child’s ability to cope with demands made of them. Keeping a log and journaling the child’s sleeping, eating, waking and even toileting habits may help reveal a pattern of behavior that was previously unnoticed. Paying particular attention to the physical environmental factors such as noise, light and temperature may offer clues that a child may be overloaded by sensory demands. Also, take note of predictors of behaviors such as increased restlessness, avoiding eye contact, pulse rate, raised voice and other signs that a melt down is about to occur. Try to change the demands of a task or remove the child from the environment if possible.

B = Behavior.

Although B comes after A (alphabetically and chronologically), defining the behavior should be the first step when trying to understand why something happens. The more definitely the behavior is stated, the higher the chance of understanding it and changing it. For example, instead of saying that Jordan throws a tantrum in the afternoons, try to label with as many parameters as possible. Seeing that Jordan bites his brother in the car on the way home after school, before he has a snack may offer up some clues about what might contribute to the tantrum – for example, the last class before school dismisses, the car ride home, his brother crying, being hungry – and help to reduce these tantrums.

C = Consequence.

Every behavior has a consequence. Some consequences can be directly observed. An attempt to communicate and get attention, a demand for a desirable object, an action to seek sensory input are examples of behaviors to obtain a consequence. A behavior can also be done to avoid a request or task, to leave an environment or to get away from a noxious stimuli. Over time, behaviors get reinforced by people and sensations. Some behaviors get repeated over and over, till they become the default method of handling life situations. Just as for antecedents, carefully log every consequence that follows a behavior, and a pattern will eventually emerge.

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