The ABCs of Behavior

How do Children Learn Behaviors?

Unless we understand how learning happens, we will not be prepared to deal with problematic behaviors, or most importantly, to prepare and prevent problem behaviors from occurring. What is the actual cause for the behavior? If you know something about why the problem behavior exists, you'll have an easier time resolving it.

The A-B-C Sequence of Behavior

A: Antecedent
B: Behavior
C: Consequences
The A-B-C strategy will help you identify ABCs of behavior problems, understand the triggers for behavior problems, become familiar with a framework to deal with difficult behaviors, and helps you find tools and solutions to behavior problems. These strategies will not change behaviors overnight because behavior is quite complex and sometimes our own behavior needs to change just as much as our children’s, which can make behavioral modification even more difficult to achieve.


The A in the ABCs stands for Antecedent - a preceding event, condition, or cause. Antecedents are things that occur prior to a child’s behavior and may even set off or trigger the behavior. Antecedents include things such as:
  • Time of day
  • Environment
  • How much sleep the child has had
  • How the child feels physically and emotionally
  • Directions or demands placed on the child
  • Particular events such as a toy being taken away or being told “no-no”
  • The sight of an item or object the child wants, like a cookie or a toy train
  • Tasks the child is asked to perform or engage in


The B in the ABCs is the observable and measurable Behavior itself. When children have not yet learned appropriate and efficient ways to behave, these skills must be taught. Behavior may include problematic behaviors such as:
  • Tantrums
  • Screaming
  • Refusal
  • Self-injury
  • Hitting, biting, scratching, hair pulling
  • Running away
  • Throwing objects
  • Leaving the table during meals
  • Grabbing a toy from sibling
  • Spitting
Behavior problems are often a result of the child not knowing an appropriate alternative, or not yet being skilled enough in using the alternative behavior to do it with ease. Children may not learn these behaviors incidentally or by chance, but they can learn, practice, and develop good or acceptable behaviors. A systematic plan for teaching appropriate alternative behaviors is helpful. Remember that appropriate behavior must be taught, practiced (generalized), and reinforced. A system of teaching, practicing, and praising good behavior results in good things that are meaningful to the child.
Behavior can also be appropriate and can include such things as:
  • Eye contact
  • Using words or gestures to obtain objects or to get attention
  • Waiting quietly
  • Using toys “nicely”
  • Sharing with a sibling
  • Complying with directions or requests
Don’t get caught up on problem behaviors. Remember, instead, to focus on those things that your son or daughter does well. Think about the times that your child uses words, symbols or gestures appropriately, gets along with siblings, waits patiently, or complies with directions. While it is important to help your children work to overcome problem behaviors, don’t overlook the many things that your children do well. Praise can be one of the most effective teachers.
Functions of Behavior
From the child's perspective, their behavior has a function and purpose. Consider what your child is expecting as a result of their behavior. What goal does this behavior help them accomplish? What are some other factors that may be contributing to their behavior? Be sure to look at what the child gets for appropriate behavior as well. When behavior is reinforced with what they are trying to obtain or avoid, they are likely to repeat this behavior.
  • What does a behavior help your child get or obtain?
    • Food, drink, candy
    • Objects, toys, activities
    • Attention, affection, scolding
    • Sensory input or stimulation, excitement
    • Material items
  • What does a behavior help your child avoid or escape?
    • Food
    • Objects, toys, activities
    • People, interactions, attention, scolding
    • Requests, demands, tasks, chores
    • Sensory input or stimulation
    • Stress
    • Pain
Removing the Function of Problem Behavior
The next step in the strategy is to look at removing the function of the behavior. If your child’s needs are met in another way, or the thing he is trying to avoid is taken away, that should decrease or stop the behavior. The behavior may not stop immediately, but with repetition it can eventually be eliminated.
  • Implement "Extinction" with the “reinforcer,” or consequence the child is using problem behavior to get. “Extinction” means eliminating problem behaviors by refusing to grant your child what she wants when she behaves problematically, and teaching her a new, desirable behavior that will result in the payoff she seeks.
  • If the problem behavior no longer results in getting that “function” met, the problem behavior should decrease or stop.
  • Extinction burst - Behavior can get worse before it gets better because the child used to getting that reinforcer by enacting the problem behavior.
To address “extinction burst,” you have to be sure that when the child behaves in a problematic way, you do not allow a reinforcement or "payoff" to happen. It is very important to teach an appropriate replacement behavior at the same time, or the child may not know what to do. Simply “not doing” the problematic behavior will not help your child. The new behavior must get the payoff, while the problem behavior does not result in the payoff. Remember, the new behavior will probably need support until the child understands. Make the new behavior “easy” for your child to do, otherwise, he/she will resort back to the problem behavior, or find the new behavior too much effort.
There are some behaviors you cannot or should not ignore
If a child could be a harm to himself or others, or if it is just too overwhelming, you may want to work on the behaviors you know you can have success with first.
  • Start “extinction” with easier behaviors first.
  • Be realistic about your resources and ability to “ignore” problem behaviors.
  • Start with behaviors and situations that are most likely to end in success for you and your child.
Is it possible for you to “ignore” or your child’s behavior or withhold a particular consequence when your child performs the behavior? What do you think might happen if you ignore a particular behavior?


The C in the ABCs stands for Consequences.
  • Consequences that increase or maintain a behavior are called “reinforcers”
  • You want to increase and maintain appropriate behavior, so you must “reinforce” it
Discovering Reinforcers
Develop a list of reinforcers for your child. What does your child like
  • to do?
  • to eat?
  • to look at?
  • to play with?
  • to do when he/she is alone?
  • to do with you?
This list provides you with possible effective reinforcers that will reward your child for positive or appropriate behaviors.
Delivery of Reinforcement
Always provide reinforcement for appropriate behavior. To make reinforcement more effective:
  • Reinforcement should quickly follow the appropriate behavior
  • Be enthusiastic as you give the reinforcement
  • Describe to your child what he did to earn the reinforcement
  • Have a variety of items to use as reinforcers so that your child doesn’t get tired or bored of any one thing
  • Offer choices to your child

Teaching Better Choices

Often a child doesn’t know what to do or how to respond more appropriately. When this is the case, we much teach the child a new behavior. Arrange consequences so that the payoff for your child to behave appropriately is more powerful (or at least competes) with the payoff for problem behavior.
  • With your child’s goal or function in mind, what should she do instead of engaging in the problem behavior?
  • How will your child learn to use this new behavior rather than the problem behavior?
  • Does the consequence of the “better choice” compete successfully with the consequences of the problem behavior?

Setting your Child Up for Success

You might wonder what you should target first. Be selective, and start with those things (or that one thing) that really impacts your family or presents a danger to your child or to others. But remember to be realistic. You will face challenges as you attempt to change your child’s behavior, and it will take time. Begin with a behavior your child can successfully learn.
Look at ways you can avoid known antecedents to undesirable behavior:
  • Provide routine predictability: many children feel confident with a scheduled routine
  • Consider sensory issues: find family activities and times that spare chaos, loud noises, and bright lights
  • Consider your child’s communication skills: how can your child communicate wants, needs, desires, and preferences in a manner that you can understand? (other than through problem behavior)
  • Offer choices to your child
  • Praise appropriate behavior

Setting Yourself Up for Success

  • Set realistic targets
  • Prevent problem behaviors when possible
  • Use powerful reinforcers
  • Eliminate reinforcers for problem behavior
  • Develop a log of what you have tried and what has worked


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Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: September 2014; last update/revision: November 2014
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Tina Persels
Reviewers: Shena McAuliffe, MFA
Gina Pola-Money