The ABC's of Behavior

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Want to hear something super exciting? Behaviors are learned! And because they are learned, they can be unlearned! Period. Isn’t that the most encouraging thing you’ve heard in a long time? You can teach a behavior, unteach a behavior and teach a new behavior!

Yes, that means if you accidentally laughed one time too many when your 2.5 year old son requesting more blueberries said, "I want some boobies!" and now he proclaims it to strangers out in public... you can undo the damage.

Before we talk about how to do that though, we need to understand the ABC’s of Behavior! To best respond to problematic behavior and understand how to teach more appropriate ones, we need to dissect the three component parts to any given behavior… the A, the B and the C.

A is for Antecedent: It’s what happens in the minute before a behavior.

Antecedents are the preceding factors that influence behavior and outcomes. They can set the stage for success, or they can absolutely trigger problematic behavior. When you identify the antecedents, you'll be able to answer the questions of where, when, who, and what else was happening just prior to a behavior occurring.

Taking on many forms, there are antecedents that promote cooperation and others that can do quite the opposite. Let’s start with some of the antecedents we want to avoid. The following no-go zone antecedents all happen before the negative behavior. Pro-tip: that means you can eliminate them and sidestep the meltdown!

Antecedents to avoid… the no-go zone!

1. Avoid calling out requests from a distance

-The further away you are, the more likely they are to blow you off.

2. Avoid transitions without a warning

-Generally speaking, kids don't like surprises - unless they involve ice cream or gifts.

3. Avoid delivering a series of rapid-fire questions or directions

-It's confusing and stressful.

4. Avoid yelling or losing your temper

-To achieve a calm & controlled environment, remain calm & controlled yourself.

5. Avoid assuming that your expectations are clear and understood

-Just because it made sense to you... well?

6. Avoid issuing demands that are likely to trigger refusal when your child is hungry and tired and you know you don’t have it in you to follow through

-If there's no way your butt is getting off the couch to follow through, then skip it.

7. Avoid leaving your precious vase on a precarious table near the erector set

-Almost like you asked for it... just saying.

We’ve covered some antecedents that don't do a whole lot to foster cooperation, but are there antecedents worth considering? Yes! There are strategies that we can implement BEFORE a behavior even occurs to make negative behavior less likely to occur at all or better yet, even result in cooperation! The technical term for this would be antecedent-based interventions, but we’re just going to call it being proactive. You do this already. When your baby became mobile, you childproofed your home. You covered outlets and put bumper pads on sharp corners. You even installed safety locks on cabinets and drawers. All this was to avoid dealing with electrocution, stitches and poison control. You manipulated the environment and set the stage for crawling, cruising and exploring. You even bought spill-proof cups to minimize mess. These are all examples of proactive measures you have taken to set your child up for success. Let’s look at a few more worth considering when it comes to promoting compliance.

Antecedents to Adopt… oh yes please!

1. Offer choices... and lots of them - this is also known as "shared control"

  1. You don’t care which toothbrush he uses.You don’t need control that badly. So share it! “It’s time to brush your teeth, would you like to use your Elmo toothbrush or the Paw Patrol?” “Would you like to sit up on the counter or use your step-stool?” “Would you like to sit in this chair or that chair?” “Would you like to leave now or in two minutes?” “Who should put you in your car seat, Mommy or Daddy?” You get the idea!

  2. When children are offered choices throughout the day and feel like they have a bit of control, they're less likely to battle you for it at every turn.

  3. "We need to run three errands: the grocery store, the post-office and get gas." "Which one should we do first?" Again, you don't really mind which one. But if they are involved in the planning, they are a lot less likely to moan about the errands. It's magical!

2. Give instructions in a way that promotes compliance and cooperation

  1. Squat down to their level, eye-to-eye, and get their attention before you issue an instruction.

  2. Issue instructions calmly and confidently, like you are just certain they are going to cooperate.

  3. Avoid being overly wordy and keep it simple. Say, “I need you to come with me” vs. “Sweetheart, I don’t have time for this, can you just come with me…PLEASE?!” After all, it's a direction you are giving. It's not really optional, so don't word it like it is. Keep it simple and concise.

  4. Say it once and wait for your child to comply... expectantly

  5. Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. “I need you to make a better choice” instead of “Stop throwing the ball in the house!” One is helpful feedback, the other is just nagging.

3. Use countdowns to transitions

  1. We know what’s happening next, but they don’t. Transitioning away from something fun can be especially hard when you're young. A little warning goes a very long way in preparing them to switch gears.

  2. Let them know when there’s about 5 minutes left before they need to do something different, and then remind them again of the upcoming transition at the 2-minute mark. “In five minutes we need to leave and head home.” “Two more minutes and then we’ll say goodbye.” When it’s go-time, you can even add one last countdown… “Okay, it’s time to go now, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we’re all done.”

  3. Make sure the transition happens at the stated time. Say what you mean and then do what you say. Believe it or not, it will only make future transitions smoother. We want them to predict with 100% certainty that you mean business.

4. Use “First _______, then _______” statements

  1. The technical term for this is called the Premack Principle, but just remember first/then. If a child wants to perform a given activity, the child will perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity. In other words, if access to desirables are made contingent on performing a less desirable behavior, then the child is more likely to engage in the less desirable behaviors for you. It's science and it's tried and true.

  2. Still confused? How about this? “First potty, then park.” “First helmet, then scooter.” “First we wash hands, then you can have your snack.” “First work, then paycheck.” Just wanted to make sure you’re still with me. First the less desirable, then the more desirable.

  3. Once again, make sure that the more desirable thing is truly contingent on following through on the less preferred demand. In other words, keep your word. Consistency is everything. If you are going to let them have the snack regardless of whether they washed their hands or not, then you have earned the zero credibility rating in their eyes. And you can be sure that they will exploit that at every turn.

5. Utilize visual aids/charts/schedules for increased understanding

  1. Little ones with limited language can often benefit from visuals where clear expectations are represented with a simple photograph or a drawing.

  2. An example would be a visual for bed-time routine. Take pictures of bath time, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, two books and lights out. Arrange them left to right or top to bottom and hang them somewhere visible. Having a visual gives you something to reference with each step. "Oh look, pajamas are on, what's next?" "Time for two books." After all, the pictures are telling us what to do next, not mommy. Right?

  3. Schedules/visual aids can be helpful for all kinds of routines, not just bedtime.

6. Provide non-contingent reinforcement

  1. It's like reinforcement or privileges that are given for free, BEFORE problems arise, in an effort to avoid them.

  2. The classic example is the preschool teacher who lets the child sit on her lap as she reads to the class.

  3. The free access to the teacher's attention eliminated the child's motivation to act out to get their teacher's attention. They already had it.

  4. Just make sure that the reinforcement that you're giving out for free, matches up with the function of the behavior we're working on. Functions of behavior are simply the reasons why a person does something. If the child generally acts out to escape reading time, then sitting on the teacher's lap would do little to resolve the issue like it would if the child were acting out to get the teacher's attention. Get it? If not, we'll talk more in depth about functions later.

7. Use Behavioral Momentum

  1. The use of a series of high-probability requests to increase compliance with lower-probability requests (Ray, Skinner & Watson, 1999)

  2. Precede a difficult task with a few easy ones to create a pattern of compliance and success before slipping in the instruction that you really want them to do.

  3. With Behavioral Momentum you build up momentum to what you really want the child to do, by tossing out easy demands & instructions first to create a pattern of success. Just make sure you are verbally praising compliance for the easy stuff. Say things like, “Wow, you are such a good listener” or “You’re so awesome doing what I asked right away!” "Woo hoo, you are so cool!" Then... and only then... do you issue you the instruction you were after in the first place...

8. Be thinking of what we call environmental modifications

  1. Structuring your child's environment can help them be more successful.

  2. Minimize or remove distractions & temptations, like keeping objects that are easily thrown out of reach.

  3. Provide well-labeled storage bins, containers, shelving, drawers, and trays for easier cleanup routines.

There are many strategies we can use to alter antecedent conditions and promote cooperation. By unraveling the mystery of why a child does what they do, we can adjust things around them and their behavior to promote better behavior. We’ve only covered the A. Let us move on to B.

B is for Behavior: When we refer to behavior, we are referring to a measurable, observable response.

For our purposes, behavior refers to the specific behavior we are trying to encourage or discourage. When we talk about a behavior, we need to be specific. “Misbehaving” isn’t specific enough or measurable in the same way that “biting” or “hitting” or “rolling eyes” is. Here my examples have more to do with challenging behavior, because let’s face it… that’s why you’re reading this. But more broadly, behavior can be anything we do. Walking, answering the phone, twirling our hair, driving, crying, sleeping, hitting "like" on Facebook… all behaviors!

C is for Consequence: This is what happens after the behavior occurs.

What happens just after a behavior has significant influences on the future occurrence of that behavior. A consequence like reinforcement will strengthen the behavior and increase the likelihood it happens again on repeat. For example, there’s a warm plate of cookies on the counter (the antecedent) and you take one and eat it (the behavior) and it tastes delicious (the consequence - specifically of the reinforcement variety). Are you more or less likely to take a second cookie? More!

Sometimes though, consequences are unpleasant and can discourage a behavior from happening again. Imagine you are running late for work (the antecedent) and therefore you walk in late (the behavior) and immediately your boss fires you (the consequence). Assuming you really liked working there, are you more or less likely to show up late to your next job? Less! What happened after you arrived late will discourage you from doing it again.

So we've learned that the consequence (the "afters") can do one of two things:

  1. It can increase the likelihood a behavior happens again (a reinforcer).

  2. Or it can decrease the likelihood the behavior happens again (a punisher)

Given that loveliness, obviously we are going to reinforce appropriate, cooperative, kind, generous, compliant behavior. Yes! Go ahead and have at it. This alone is one of the most effective things you can do to promote good behavior. It's a pro-tip and will be your very first homework assignment Reinforce away!

And so we will then punish disruptive, negative, naughty, rude, defiant disobedience... right? Wrong! Listen, if natural consequences unfold, then so be it. For example, if you go to the beach (antecedent) and you forget to use sunscreen (behavior) and you end up looking like a lobster (consequence), presumably you won't forget sunscreen again anytime soon. The natural consequence of burning served as the punisher. But we aren't going to go around applying consequences so kids "feel the burn" so to speak. It's tempting, I get it. But if yelling or shaming worked, you wouldn't be here. So then what else can we do when a negative behavior is center stage? Work to reduce any potential payoffs to the behavior! And quickly! A little one can feel pretty powerful if throwing a tantrum makes everyone stop in their tracks and the world stand still. Make sure that doesn't happen. Carry on, acting as if you could care less that he's on the floor screaming bloody murder. Step over him and model calm and in doing so, you'll minimize any potential payoffs. Read this paragraph again pretty please. I'll wait. Okay, now we can move on.

You need to be aware of another potential pitfall. Because science tells us that reinforcing a behavior strengthens it, we need to be exceedingly careful to not inadvertently reinforce the wrong behavior. Think "I want boobies!" Your in-laws are over for lunch and everyone is eating together at the table (the antecedent). Your 2.5 year old son asks for more blueberries, "I want boobies" (the behavior) and everyone erupts with laughter (the consequence). And because everyone giggled in delight (the reinforcer), he did it again! And again! Your cute little angel child now runs around saying "I want boobies!" to perfect strangers to get a laugh. After all, he's been repeatedly reinforced for it.

Now imagine your very own rambunctious 3 year-old. He’s buckled up in the cart with you at the grocery store. You pass the bakery and the lady behind the counter offers him a cookie. You politely decline on his behalf, as he just gobbled two bags of fruit snacks while you frantically shopped super-speed to avoid a public melt down (antecedent). Upon hearing you say “no thank you” and heading towards the cheese, he opens the floodgates and starts to cry loudly, even throwing his head back and all (behavior). You have four more things on your list and still need to grab your prescription too, so you change your mind and give in. He gets the cookie (consequence). Is he more or less likely to cry again when he’s told no or denied access to something he really wants? More! He has learned in that split second that crying was an effective way to get what he wanted. He was rewarded for crying, even though I’m sure it was unintentional on your part. The cookie reinforced crying and inadvertent reinforcement occurred. While you didn't overtly praise crying, giving in with the cookie shaped his behavior.

Inadvertent reinforcement can occur a lot more subtly too. Let's say you tell your child "It's time to go to bed" (the antecedent) and he begins to pout. He makes a sad face and his shoulders drop (the behavior) and he looks sort of cute pouting so you say, "Oh don't be sad, how about one more book?" (the consequence). More or less likely to pout to get what he wants moving forward? More! You didn't have to say, "Good pouting!" to inadvertently reinforce pouting. Just by reducing the demand and extending his bedtime by one little book, he got the message. Get it? Good!

Now you know that not all consequences are created equal, and understanding the implications will help you consistently use consequences to promote appropriate behavior and minimize any potential payoffs hiding in the wings. To really hammer it in you, I've included the "no-go zone" and "oh yes please" lists below.

Consequences to avoid… the no-go zone!

1. Avoid giving negative attention

  1. Children value attention, particularly from adults in their life.

  2. They value it so much in fact, that they’ll take it any way it comes… positive attention or negative attention is better than no attention at all.

  3. As such, yelling, screaming and even spanking your child can actually lead to an increase in problematic behavior.

  4. Be very careful to not inadvertently reinforce challenging behavior by giving it negative attention when your child is craving attention.

2. Avoid inadvertently applying a positive consequence

  1. If your child is using delay tactics to clean up after being told, resist the temptation to just do it for them.

  2. If you do it for them, they’ve learned that stalling when told to do something is an effective strategy for getting an adult to help or even get out of it entirely.

  3. Think of the cookie at the bakery scenario. If you feel like you are “giving in” then red flags and alarm bells should be sounding.

3. Avoid delaying meaningful consequences