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The ABCs of ABA

One of the main goals of ABA is to determine why a behavior happens, or what the function of a behavior is. Cause and effect are identified in our day-to-day activities, and we have no problem discerning why we do most of the things we do – “Why did you open the fridge?” “Because I was hungry.” Or “Why did you change the channel?” “Because I wanted to watch something else.” Most of the actions we take serve a particular purpose.  

When we talk about children, their actions follow a similar logic. Why did they cry? Because they wanted to get the toy. Why did they push the pencil away? Because they wanted to stop working. We like to talk about these things as the functions of behavior, because in finding out the function of a behavior, we can teach a better way for the individuals we work with to get the things they want.  

How does that system work? 

We like to call them the ABC’s – Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence – of what we do. Most of the time, when we know the actions that surround a behavior, we can then figure out why it happened. And once we know what happened, we can teach a better way to help our children succeed at what they were trying to accomplish. Let’s break that down a little more. 

Antecedent – What happened before the behavior we’re talking about? This can be something obviously connected to the behavior–being told no, an item was out of reach, they were asked to do a chore, the toy they were playing with broke—or something less obvious such as a sound in the environment (the air conditioner makes a whirring noise, somewhere a dog started barking), to a change in light (headlights from a car were in their eyes), to the tag on their shirt started to itch. When looking at the antecedent, the answer is rarely “nothing.” There was some environmental change that gave rise to a behavior. 

Behavior – What does it look like? How many times does it occur? One of the important steps in the process is to be able to clearly identify what behavior we’re talking about in ways that everyone can agree it either happened or didn’t happen. Descriptors such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, while easy to fall back on, rarely provide enough information for us to understand a behavior. Instead, we like to use terms that are objective, measurable, and replicable. If we’re talking about someone’s eating habits, a less helpful description is, “He eats well, but sometimes doesn’t finish his food.” Each person that hears the description would envision a different scenario. It could mean that they ate half their plate, three quarters of their food, or left small scraps of rice on the plate. What you think is “well” may not match what other people think is well.  

To avoid this conundrum, we like to use terms that are objective–meaning that they don’t rely on an individual’s perspective or past experiences–and measurable–meaning that we can assign precise numbers and values to what we’re looking at. The same phrase as above in objective and measurable terms would be, “He eats his broccoli, meat, and rice, but doesn’t finish the last piece of anything.” With this description, we could bring in any number of people, and they would each end with the same information.  

Consequence – We like to use the word consequence a little different than its colloquial use, which focuses on negative outcomes. When speaking about behavior, we use the word to mean whatever happened because of the behavior. For instance, the consequence of asking for juice is that receiving juice. The consequence of turning a doorknob is the door opening. While it can mean negative outcomes, such as the consequence of touching a hot stove is getting burned, we do not focus solely on these.  

When looking at a behavior, it’s the consequence that tells us the most about why it’s happening. Afterall, if you keep turning a doorknob and it doesn’t open, then you’re going to stop trying to turn that particular doorknob! Whatever happens after the behavior tends to indicate whether the behavior is more or less likely to happen again in the future. 

So how does that fit with your services at Prism? 

Sometimes when you tell us that a behavior at home is concerning, we’ll ask for information about the ABC’s of that behavior. By taking detailed notes about the behavior in the home environment, we’ll be able to compare what happens in our clinic and what happens in your home and find a solution that will work across settings. Additionally, gaining enough practice taking this data on your own will help you figure out exactly why things happen at home and come up with your own solutions, rather than waiting for the next time we meet to address difficulties you’re facing.  

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