The ABCs of Behavior

June 22, 2021
Danielle Kanouff


Danielle @ 3C

Most people know the alphabet, but there is also a set of ABCs within the world of applied behavior analysis.


Often it is referred to in an A-B-C sequence. It’s used when trying to figure out patterns of behavior.


If you’ve interacted with children, you may have commented, “What a polite kid,” or “Whoa, did you see what that kid just did? I wonder how often they act up like that?”. Although that is a generalization, I think many of us have observed a ‘well-behaved’ child or one who is ‘misbehaving.’


Where do these behaviors come from, and why? First, let’s define what behavior is. The Oxford Dictionary gives us these definitions: “the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others” and “the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus.”


The second definition is most relevant when addressing the ABCs. The way we respond to certain stimuli in our environment essentially defines how we will behave in similar future situations. Let’s unpack what that means!


A – Antecedent


It is whatever happens immediately before a behavior occurs. For example, you’re in line to check out at the grocery store, and you see a parent and their toddler in line next to you. The child asks for a candy bar; the parent says no, and the child begins to become visibly upset. They ask the parent for the candy bar again. The parent stands their ground, says “No, next time,” and the child then begins to tantrum in the middle of the store. The parent looks around, maybe embarrassed, not wanting to deal with the tantrum in public, and so then gives their child the candy bar. Ah, tantrum no more.


Here the antecedent is what we would call “denied access”; it is what occurred immediately before the tantrum. The parent denies the child access to the candy bar. “Denied access” is a common antecedent when we witness maladaptive behavior.


In this example, the antecedent presumably led to the child’s ‘bad’ behavior, but there are also ‘good’ antecedents! We will talk more about those types of antecedents later on in a future post.


B – Behavior


With the example above, the behavior is a tantrum. Behavior is typically observable or measurable (CHH, 2007); something we want to occur more frequently, less frequently, for a longer duration, or shorter duration of time.


If we were targeting this specific behavior, we would probably want to decrease the tantrum time or eliminate it from occurring altogether. Identifying the behavior is usually pretty straightforward, but sometimes the behavior needs to be broken down.


In those cases, maybe the tantrum involves several behaviors (screaming, kicking, hitting, biting, etc.), in which you may observe the behaviors happening in order of escalation or altogether. So, what happens after the behavior(s) occur?


C – Consequence


When we hear the word consequence, most of the time, we associate it with something punitive. In this case, a consequence is any event immediately following a behavior.


Let’s revisit the scenario above. The antecedent was the parent denying access to a candy bar. The behavior was the tantrum thrown by the child, and the consequence was the child receiving the candy bar from the parent after they engaged in the tantrum behavior.


The consequence ultimately shows us that the child gets what they want by engaging in behavior most of us want to keep to a minimum or eliminate. Since the child ended up in a tantrum to get the candy bar, that will likely happen again in the future if the parent responds “no” to their request. The tantrum is effectively maintained by receiving the candy bar.


Putting the ABCs To Use


Most observable behaviors can be evaluated using the ABCs – the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence. Maybe you’ve worked with children or young adults before and have found that there are patterns or some predictability to their problematic behaviors – you are probably right.


Using the ABCs within ABA can help you understand behaviors and help identify what is maintaining a behavior. If you find out what is maintaining the behavior, it is absolutely possible to change it! 


Learning the A-B-Cs of behaviors can be challenging.  I am sharing with you two worksheets that I use with families when learning about behaviors.  I hope these worksheets inspire you to practice identifying the A-B-Cs of behaviors and how to address them. 


Thanks for reading,





Oxford English Dictionary. Copyright © 2021. Oxford University Press.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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