The Simple ABC & F of Behavior

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The Principles of Understanding & Shaping Behavior
Knowledge for Parents Especially those with Young Children

Have you ever been baffled by your child’s behavior? Have you ever wondered why your child is acting a certain way or wondered why they haven’t learned to behave a different way? Sometimes we have to step back and think about the behavior and what it means. Behavior is communication and if we stop and listen we can often have a better understanding of what a child is communicating.

As children grow and turn into adults, behavior and its communication tend to become more complex. But with younger children, we can often take time to watch, listen and use behavior theory tools to understand a child’s behavior.  Once we have a better understanding of a child’s behavior, we can make effective decisions to help guide them to improve their behavior.

The following information is intended to be a brief guide on using behavior theory in a way to help our children establish adaptive behaviors (the behaviors we want them to have!). The key element is that behaviors are learned and taught through something that is called operant conditioning: what happens after a behavior occurs is the key event that may encourage the child to do the behavior again or discourage the child from doing the behavior again.

Understanding Behavior

First you want to understand what happens in the sequence when a behavior occurs. The ABC & F will help you better understand a behavior.

ABC & F of Behavior:

A = Antecedents (the events that happen before a behavior occurs)

B = Behavior (the specific way the child acts)

C = Consequences (the events that happen after a behavior occurs)

F = Functions of Behavior:

Every behavior has a function, meaning there is a reason the child is behaving in such a away. If the child is able to gain what they want by acting that way, he or she will likely behave the same way again. Common functions of behavior include: avoiding something, gaining attention, gaining a preferred item or activity or gaining control. When other functions are ruled out, it may also be a function of an internal state that may be difficult to determine (e.g. overstimulation, hunger, pain, sleep deprivation, etc.).

Once you have an idea of what the function is, you can adjust the consequence you respond with so the child is more or less likely to repeat the behavior. You can also teach the child more appropriate ways to get what he or she is wanting. Here are 2 examples of the same behavior that has different function. You will plan to respond differently to this same behavior depending on the function of the behavior.

Example #1:

When Mom announces that dinner is ready, 3 year old Johnny runs away from the table and yells “no”.

A = Mom announces dinner is ready

B = Johnny runs away and yells no

F = Johnny wants to play and does not want to sit at the table

C = Mother reminds Johnny that the whole family eats dinner together and after he eats dinner at the table he will be able to play one of his games. (If this is a common issue for Johnny, having a few special activities reserved for after meal time may help build more motivation for eating dinner).

Note: If Mom were to send him to his room as a consequence for yelling “no”, it would increase the likelihood that he will do this behavior again. If the function of his behavior is to avoid sitting at the table, sending him to his room helps him to get exactly what he wants…avoidance of the table. So in this case, it is important to not allow him to avoid dinner, but to use a different consequence.

Example #2:

When Mom announces that dinner is ready, 3 year old Johnny runs away from the table and yells “no”.

A = Mom announces dinner is ready

B = Johnny runs away and yells no

F = Johnny wants his mother’s attention

C = Johnny’s mother reminds him that when he comes to the table she wants to hear about his day or his favorite movie, etc. Maybe Johnny can sit next to Mom that night.

Note: If Mom were to go to Johnny’s side and talk about why it isn’t nice to yell “no”, and ask what’s wrong or bargain about coming to the table, all of this time spent talking with mom is supporting his function of wanting Mom’s attention and he will likely do it again. In this case, mother wants to fulfill his need to have more attention from mom by giving him attention for doing the right behavior of coming to the dinner table.

Applying Behavioral Strategies to Help a Child

Anyone can begin to use this information to help understand a child’s behavior and to guide change from unwanted behaviors to wanted behaviors.  You want to start small! Think of one behavior your child does that you would like to help change (start simple). See if you can label the most common ABC information for when that behavior occurs. Then begin to think about the F! What do you guess the child is trying to achieve by doing that behavior (e.g. avoiding something they don’t want to do, trying to get something they want, trying to get someone’s attention no matter if it’s positive or negative attention, etc.). If you can figure out what they want (function) and you are able to guide them into better behavior to get what they want then you are on your way!

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