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 teachers 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 a classroom?

The ABC approach can be helpful in some classroom 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 class has been given some free time to play learning games on iPads. The teacher asks the class to pack up the iPad™ and sit back on the mat.
One student, Ruby, becomes agitated, refuses to return the iPad™ and keeps playing with it. This happens regularly and can last between 10-30 minutes. The behaviour is not severe, but disrupts the class and Ruby’s learning.
By refusing to follow instructions from the teacher, Ruby is able to continue to do what she wants, which is play with the iPad™. She is communicating a want.
  • Use a visual schedule. Cleary communicate how long each activity is and what’s coming next so children can be prepared for the change.
  • Set clear rules. Few rules that are short and simple work well. Ruby might benefit from visual reminders of the rules to help her know when it is time to pack up. This addresses the consequence stage, as it may help Ruby respond more appropriately.
  • Match teaching to interests and abilities. Engage students by considering what they like and can do. Think about using an iPad™ or computer in some lessons so Ruby can learn with the iPad™, not just have free time. This addresses the consequence stage and might help Ruby respond more positively when being asked to put away the iPad.
  • Sit students with positive role models. Sit students with other students who model positive behaviours. For example, get Ruby use the iPad™ with a friend who is likely to pack up when asked.

Example 2

It’s lunchtime and some Grade 6 students are playing a game of soccer on the oval. Tom touches the ball with his hand (which is against the rules). Another boy, Jake, sees him and says Tom needs to give the ball to the other team for a free kick. Tom doesn’t want to give the ball away and the two have an argument.
Tom gets angry, because Jake continues to tell him to hand over the ball. Tom punches Jake in the chest and takes the ball away. Tom has been known to get angry with others and has pushed other children over before. This behaviour is severe because Tom has physically hurt another student.
The consequence of Tom’s behaviour is that he was able to keep the ball for himself. His behaviour was his way of communicating that he wanted to keep the ball and that he wanted his team to win.
  • Set clear rules. Set rules for games at lunch time if needed. This could involve having a teacher supervise or be the referee with clear rules of behaviour and consequences communicated up front. For example, if anyone argues with the referee or if there is fighting, the game ends. This targets the antecedent, and might reduce the chance of this happening again.
  • Teach social skills. Teaching Tom social skills might help him communicate more appropriately with others through verbal communication rather than physical fighting. Role playing scenarios privately could be a good teaching approach. This targets the consequence, as it may help him communicate his desire to have the ball in a more socially oriented way.
  • Teach children about feelings. Make some time to teach Tom about emotions, particularly anger, perhaps by using emotion card games. A feelings thermometer might help in the classroom. Encourage Tom to recognise feelings and learn strategies to calm down. This targets the consequence, as it may help him respond to a similar situation more appropriately.

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