The ABC Approach
to Behaviour

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The ABC approach to behaviour

What is the ABC approach?

ABC stands for antecedent (A), behaviour (B) and consequence (C). It is an observation tool that educators can use to analyse what happened before, during and after a behaviour1.

All behaviour can be thought of as communication. The ABC approach can help you find out what a child is trying to say (e.g. express tiredness or frustration from a task being too hard), as well as what the child gets out of the behaviour (e.g. someone’s attention or an object they want).

Antecedents are all the things that happen leading up to a behaviour. They could be things like tiredness or hunger, which may increase the likelihood of a particular behaviour. It could also be triggers, like being given a difficult task or being asked to do something the child doesn’t want to do, that cause the behaviour.
When understanding a behaviour, consider:

  • What happened? What did the child say or do?
  • How often does it happen and for how long?
  • How intense was it?
The consequence is what happens immediately after the child’s behaviour. It may be what someone does as a reaction to the behaviour, such as giving attention or an object. It could also be the child escaping from an activity or situation, or getting sensory stimulation.

Why use the ABC approach in an early childhood education and care setting?

The ABC approach can be helpful in some situations. It can help understand what leads to a behaviour, and whether a particular response may be increasing or decreasing the likelihood of it happening again. Using evidence-based strategies (like those found on AllPlay Learn) to guide behaviour through addressing the antecedents and consequences can be a helpful approach to reduce challenging behaviour.

Example 1

A small group of children have been playing instruments, singing loudly and dancing near the sandpit for approximately 15 minutes.
A child runs away from the group screaming and sits on the sandpit. She covers her ears, closes her eyes and mumbles on her own. An educator tries talking to her but the child won’t listen or open her eyes. This behaviour seems to be occurring a couple of times each day.
The children in the group looked surprised. Some moved away and others kept playing and singing but quietly. The educator asked the group why the child was upset but no one seemed to know. The educator tried talking to the child with no response. It took the child approximately 10 minutes to open her eyes and to go back to joining others in play.
The child might be communicating that they are overstimulated and overwhelmed. This seems to be occurring after loud or group activities take place. The educator may wish to:

  • Allow breaks. Some children may need breaks to help them calm down or refocus. Consider having a safe space where they can calm down or do small movement activities.
  • Teach children about feelings. Challenging behaviour can result from not being able to manage emotions. If a child becomes angry or upset, encourage them to pause, take a breath, and tell themselves to calm down. A “feelings thermometer” on the wall can help older children communicate how they are feeling without using words.
  • Do basic relaxation exercises together. A few minutes each day doing simple breathing and muscle relaxation exercises can be good for all children.

Example 2

The children are sitting quietly on the mat listening to their educator who is reading a picture book about recycling.
One child is restless and having trouble listening to the story that is being read. He keeps standing up and sitting down. He is sometimes poking other children and making them laugh too. He keeps doing this until the story finishes and then runs off to the block corner before the educator reminds them what is happening next.
The educator keeps calling on the child and asking him to sit down, to listen and to “keep his hands to himself”. The children he is poking are getting distracted and think he is funny.
In this situation, the strategies could help the child participate in the group activity. He needs support to focus and join – instead of distract – others. The educator may wish to:

  • Consider seating children away from distractions (e.g. windows, objects or other children). Instead, children may engage in more positive behaviours if they are sitting near peers who can model positive behaviours or are sitting where you can interact with them. Stability balls and cushions may help some children focus and stay in their seat.
  • Get their attention before speaking. Eye contact, gestures, touch or verbal prompts can be used to get children’s full attention before giving instructions or speaking to them.
  • Teach social skills. Children can learn to get along with others through play activities. Consider showing them how to listen, observe, communicate, help, share, give and accept praise, cooperate and ask to join in during play. Role-play and model different situations and give children feedback as they practise these skills.

1. Dyer, K. (2013). Antecedent-behavior-consequence (ABC) analysis. Encyclopedia of autism spectrum disorders, 175-180.