Do you know your ABCs? Understanding behavior, part one

Now that the school year is underway, the students with behavior problems are starting to test everyone’s limits.  When I first begin working on a new case, I want to know not only what the student is doing, but why.  In this two-part series, we’ll start with the what.  Teachers and other educators can be a great support if they provide information on the ABCs- antecedent, behavior, and consequence.  Need to learn or refresh on your ABCs?  Read below.

Antecedent– What happens just before the behavior?  Here are some common antecedents that we see in schools.

  • The student is given work to do independently, or is given a direction.  If the student does not  want to do the work or follow the direction, we may see behaviors such as crying, talking or other off-task behavior, refusal to work, and other more intense behaviors such as tantrums or leaving the classroom.
  • Another student instigates the behavior.   The second student may talk and distract the student, or do something to antagonize the student such as name-calling or being aggressive.  With older students, instigating behavior could be a more overt threat to fight, a mean look (what my students call “mugging”), or anything in between.
  • There is a transition between activities.  For younger students or students with disabilities, transitions introduce special challenges as students are moving around and interacting.  For older students, passing periods are a particular time where peer interactions can become negative, or where students may detour or delay their arrival to class.

Behavior– What exactly is the behavior?  When describing the student’s behaviors, refrain from broad statement (he had a tantrum, she misbehaves) or statements about the student (she was being bad, he is disrespectful).  Instead, operationally define the behavior using specific details.  Instead of “he had a tantrum”, say “he yelled and throws his pencils”, and instead of “she is disrespectful”, say “she uses profanity toward the teacher”.  Also, it’s important to know the frequency (how often), intensity (how strong), and duration (how long) of the behavior.  When describing a student who has tantrums, in addition to defining the behaviors you see, you can also report that he has two tantrums a day, that they involve yelling and throwing objects, and that an average tantrum lasts a half hour.  When describing a student who uses profanity, you can report that she does it daily, the types of words used, and that she continues until she is removed from the room.  You may also be asked to give the latency– how long between the antecedent (giving independent work) and the behavior (the student throwing his pencil).

Consequence– What happens immediately after the behavior?  Does the student go to the office or another classroom after the behavior?  Are classroom consequences (moving clip/card, loss of privileges, call home) used?  Do other students laugh, get upset, or have another clear reaction?  Remember, consequences can be positive or negative.

Let’s put it together with a couple case examples, one for elementary and one for secondary.

Case 1– Ms. Puckett’s first grade class has been practicing subtraction, and then are given a practice worksheet.  Alex takes the paper, rips it up, and throws it to the ground.  Ms. Puckett moves his clip to yellow and tells him he will miss recess.

  • What was the antecedent to Alex’s behavior?  What did he do (frequency, intensity, duration, and latency)?  What were the consequences?

Case 2– Mrs. Perez notices that Johnna has her phone out during her biology lesson.  Mrs. Perez tells her to put it away, and Johnna yells, “You can’t make me!” and uses an obscenity.  The other students laugh, and Mrs. Perez tells Johnna to go straight to the office.

  • What was the antecedent to Johnna’s behavior? What did she do (frequency, intensity, duration, and latency)?  What were the consequences?

Resources- There are many examples of charts that can be used to track behavior using an ABC model.  This worksheet from Kansas Institute of Positive Behavior Supports is very similar to the one I ask teachers to complete.

Now that we can talk  more effectively about what is going on, we can go deeper into why behaviors occur.  In part 2, I’ll go into the functions of behavior, and how we can use this information to help change our students’ negative behavior.


Do you have a question for Dr. Lisa?  Do you have a topic suggestion?  Use the comment tab or post below!

One thought on “Do you know your ABCs? Understanding behavior, part one

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s