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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Nordman

Behavior Management #1: Learning A-B-C

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

Welcome to the first article in an 8-part series about behavior management. The focus will be reducing problem behaviors, and my goal is to tailor this specifically to parents and guardians. Throughout the series I will include common questions that I’m asked by family members and errors that I sometimes observe. There are a lot of great resources already out there, but hopefully you will find it beneficial to have everything in one series with a casual, approachable tone instead of ABA jargon. My goal is to provide basic tools for families so that by the end of the series they are capable of treating several problem behaviors themselves.

Part 5: Extinction (6/18/21)

Part 6: What to Teach? (6/25/21)

Part 7: Generalization (7/2/21)

Part 8: What Next?: Maintenance (7/9/21)

Out of all 8 parts, I believe this first topic is the most difficult task for parents, teachers, and behavior analysts. The first step when a problem behavior begins occurring is to determine the cause. In ABA we call it the “function” of the behavior. A lot of people assume that the hard part for a behavior analyst would be putting together a behavior intervention plan or training therapists and family members to follow it appropriately, but the hardest part is typically just finding out why the child engages in the behavior in the first place. Once we find that out, as you will see from this series, everything else falls into place by following basic ABA principles.

Just as a disclaimer, before we get into potential environmental functions, you should first rule out medical causes. This is especially important if the child happens to be nonverbal. I would probably act out and engage in problem behaviors myself if I had a toothache that I couldn’t request help with. The most effective way of ruling out medical causes is by staying current with doctor visits, but usually if the problem behavior escalates dramatically in severity (e.g. your normally calm 7-year-old begins biting siblings constantly) or if the duration/frequency of a behavior skyrockets in a short timespan (e.g. your 4-year-old typically has 1-2 three-minute tantrums per day, but now those tantrums are occurring 5-10 times per day) that’s a sign that there might be a medical cause.

There are typically four “primary” reasons that someone engages in a behavior:

To gain attention

To escape/avoid something or someone

To gain access to something tangible

To get sensory input

While the list seems simple enough, what makes it difficult is that some behaviors might not have just one function but could be a combination of several of them. And in other cases, a behavior might start as one function but then evolve into a different function. In ABA we believe that every behavior has an underlying reason, and hopefully by the end of this article you will have some of the tools necessary to find out what that reason might be.

Time to take the first steps toward behavior management

“It happened out of nowhere!”

“She already had everything she wanted, so I don’t know why she acted out for more”

“Oh, there are reasons for behavior other than attention?”

“You mean I can’t even scold him?

These are all common statements and questions from parents, ABA therapists, and teachers. I think the best way to dive into the ABCs is by approaching each one individually.

“It happened out of nowhere!”

This is probably the most common statement that I get. We are told that it typically happens “for no reason at all”. If tantrums started out of thin air or physical aggression came at us “out of nowhere”, it would be a scary world to live in. Thankfully there is almost always a reason for each behavior, and the way that most behavior analysts explain it is by teaching the ABCs of Behavior:

Antecedent -> Behavior -> Consequence

The antecedent is what happens in the environment before the behavior.

The behavior is the specific problem behavior that we are targeting.

The consequence is what happens in the environment after the behavior.

In future articles in this series, especially Part 2 and part 5, we will go into antecedents and consequences with way more detail. But for the purpose of the article today, it’s important to learn how to look at a behavior with a bird’s eye view.


As stated above, the antecedent is whatever happens in the environment before the behavior occurs. Antecedents can provoke behaviors and can also prevent them. Along with consequences, they work to shape and modify behavior.


John dumps his plate of carrots on the floor after his mom puts the plate in front of him.

Antecedent: Carrots being placed in front of him.

Steve tips over his dad’s desk lamp while he is on a work call.

Antecedent: Steve’s dad being on a work call.


While the word “behavior” is vague, for the purpose of today’s article, and throughout the rest of the series as well, assume that the “B” in “Behavior” is referring to the specific problem behavior that you want to reduce. It’s something that needs to be observable, so “Johnny being too anxious” won’t work. And it needs to pass what we call the “dead man’s test”, which means that if a dead man can do it, it doesn’t count as a behavior. For example, “not speaking”, “not getting out of the car”, and “ignoring” would not pass the dead man's test.

Here are some types of behaviors that are typically targeted for reduction:

Bob hitting his older sister.

Jane throwing papers off her desk during e-learning.

Samuel scripting “Paw Patrol” repetitively.

These are all specific, observable, and would pass the dead man’s test. If you do happen to have a dead person walking around your house quoting children’s TV shows, you have bigger problems on your hands.


The “C” is referring to the consequence, which is whatever occurs after the behavior. This is typically the most confusing of the three for parents, since outside of ABA the word “consequence” usually has a negative connotation. When I first teach parents about different types of consequences, they usually think of a teacher threatening a student by saying there will be consequences if anyone is caught cheating, or maybe a politician making a newspaper headline with a quote threatening another country with “consequences”. But in ABA the consequences can also be a good thing. Here are some examples of consequences:

Jake tells a joke that makes his dad laugh.

Consequence: Dad laughing

Aaron covers for a coworker’s shift and gets a pizza delivered as a thank-you.

Consequence: Pizza getting delivered

Here are some examples of aversive consequences:

Liam whispers to his classmate then is reprimanded by his teacher.

Consequence: Getting reprimanded by his teacher

Jason calls his teenage daughter an embarrassing name in front of her friends then gets a death stare from her.

Consequence: Getting a death stare from his daughter

"Consequences" sells newspapers

When you piece together the entire A-B-C sequence, it’s easier to see how antecedents and consequences work side-by-side to modify behaviors:

The function in this example is Escape (to get out of having to clean her room).

After a few weeks or months of this, Emma’s parents might wonder why she is crying all of the time

Here's another example:

In this case, the function of Oliver's hitting is access to tangible (iPad). After a few weeks or months with this concerning trend, Oliver’s parents will wonder why he is starting to hit classmates at school.

“She already had everything she wanted, so I don’t know why she acted out for more”

Common Error #1: Only looking at the antecedent

Here is a conversation I had with a parent 3-4 years ago:

Parent: “We were all sitting and watching the movie as a family, then out of nowhere she started crying. There wasn’t any reason.”

Me: “What happened when she was crying?”

Parent: “I picked her up then let her sit on my lap. Luckily she calmed down right away.”

Me: “Do you usually cuddle with your daughter, or just when she cries?”

Parent: “Just when she cries….oh.”

The example above shows the importance of looking at both the antecedent and consequence of behaviors. I agree with the dad for the first part, since if we only considered what happens before a behavior occurs, it would seem like his daughter started crying for no reason. But once we learned what the consequence was, the “function” became clearer (most likely a combination of attention from dad as well as the sensory input of cuddling/hugging).

“Oh, there are reasons for behavior other than attention?”

It’s easy to think that behaviors are maintained by attention, even though it may be escape or access to something tangible. There are typically two reasons why this is the case:

Reason #1: What the child wants can only be given by an adult

Besides toys in their bedroom along with some things that might be lingering in common areas like the kitchen or living room that are reachable, most children have to get items from their parents. For example, if they’re hungry then they need to ask a parent for a snack. If they want their iPad, and happen to have a screen time limit, they have to ask their parents for access. In order to ask a parent for the item they first need to get their attention, which is why parents and teachers often quickly write off the function as attention. In ABA we call these functions “socially-mediated”, since there needs to be a “middle man” for the child to get what they want. But just like the above examples, it’s important to look at the consequences of the behavior as well to get the full picture:

Socially-Mediated Access to Tangible

If you look at just the antecedent and behavior here, it would be difficult to tell what the daughter wanted. At first glance it looks like it may be attention, but if the daughter is non-verbal she may only be able to ask for what she wants in limited ways. Once we look at different things that might happen after she tugs her mom’s shirt does it become clearer:

Consequence #1: Mom ignores daughter. Daughter continues to tug her shirt.

Consequence #2: Mom thinks it is for attention, so she tickles her, picks her up, and brings her to the living room. Daughter begins to cry.

Consequence #3: Mom gives daughter a cookie from the pantry. Daughter happily eats it.

After looking at three potential options, it’s likely that the function was the third one, access to tangible. Because younger kids don’t usually have free reign on all the snacks in their families’ kitchens, she had to request it from her mom.

Socially-Mediated Escape

When I meet with teachers and school staff, I hear about situations like this very frequently. Because Noah’s behaviors, like making funny faces to his aide or trying to make his classmates laugh, appear like he wants their attention, that is the only function that they think is causing the behavior. But since he finds the sound of the recorders very irritating, the most likely reason was wanting to escape from that environment. Since he understands that he can’t just stand up and walk out of the classroom to the principal’s office, he knows that leaving the classroom needs to be socially-mediated. Sometimes kids ask for bathroom breaks repetitively, pretend to be sick, etc., but the ultimate goal is to escape the loud environment.

I think everyone shares your views on recorders, Noah

Reason #2: The child still has limited vocabulary

I think every parent is familiar with a scenario like this: your child is trying to describe a movie or TV show that they want to watch, or a song they want to hear, but they are getting increasingly frustrated because you don’t know what they are talking about. Or in the example earlier, when the girl tugs on her mom’s shirt and gets a cookie, she is lucky that the cookie is what she wanted. But what if she had wanted a piece of candy instead, and didn’t have the language capabilities yet to express that? She would probably continue to tug on her mom’s shirt, and maybe even engage in other behaviors like crying eventually, which would look more and more like attention.

Another scenario, like I had briefly mentioned in the medical disclaimer at the beginning of the article, would fall in this category. Here is an example:

What looks like wanting attention, crying and wanting to cuddle with his parents, might actually be Anthony not wanting to brush his teeth because of a toothache caused by a cavity. But how does a non-verbal child describe a cavity if they have limited language? It’s probably easier to just engage in behaviors like this in order to avoid having to touch the tooth that is causing pain, especially if it is reinforced by family.

“You mean I can’t even scold him?

Here’s another common scenario:

Parent #1:

Antecedent: Dad is on a work call when Evelyn finishes up with e-learning.

Behavior: Evelyn tantrums for his attention

Consequence: Dad remembers parent training with her BCBA and uses planned ignoring.

Parent #2:

Antecedent: Mom is rocking their baby to sleep in the nursery upstairs when Evelyn finishes up with e-learning.

Behavior: Evelyn tantrums for her attention.

Consequence: Mom remembers parent training with her BCBA and uses planned ignoring.

Grandma babysits on Tuesday:

Antecedent: Grandma is feeding the baby with a bottle when Evelyn finishes up with e-learning.

Behavior: Evelyn tantrums for her attention.

Consequence: Grandma scolds her then yells that she needs to be quiet because of the baby.

Even negative attention is still attention, and therefore potentially reinforcing. Evelyn’s parents might ask their BCBA why tantrumming is still occurring, since they are following the behavior intervention plan that was written for her.

Common Error #2

Everyone needs to be on the same page together, whether it’s figuring out the function of a behavior, implementing a behavior intervention plan, or even starting potty training. Like we will talk about in Part 5, it just takes one person to throw off the plan. Sometimes it might be a relative, especially if they think that “old school” consequences were the way they were raised, but other times it could also be someone in the school. Your child will most likely see several different aides and teachers in the 15-30 hours/week they are in school, so it’s important to keep open lines of communication with your child’s teacher.

"You get a scolding! And you get a lecture! Everyone gets attention!!"

Parents, don't let these people ruin your behavior plans!

Here are some more examples to practice before next week’s article:




Access to Tangible





Access to Tangible


What next?

If you’d like to collect ABA data for your own child to determine the functions of their behaviors, there are usually two types of data collection forms. You can either use a form where behaviors are already pre-written which you check off, or you can use a form that is largely blank that you fill in yourself.

Here are some examples of forms that are pre-filled:

Here’s an example of a form that you would fill out yourself:

See you next week! We will be focusing on the A of the “A-B-C” to come up with strategies to prevent behaviors from occurring.

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