The A-B-C’s of Behavior
Problem behaviors may be a common challenge for students, especially those with developmental and learning disabilities. Parents, educators and family members may find problem behaviors in children a common source of stress. The behaviors may significantly limit the child’s access to activities and settings for children and families, may limit learning opportunities in the classroom, and cause disruption to others. In short, problem behaviors may impact the quality of the child’s life.
If you have a child with problem behaviors, he/she may be receiving training in Applied Behavior Analysis, a popular evidence-based approach to the problem. ABA was initially developed in response to the problems of children with autism, who were seen to have difficulties with social communication and developing relationships with others, and limited, repetitive, or unusual behaviors. ABA is the discipline devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior—why people do what they do, and how to manipulate conditions to improve behavior.
Behaviorists looking at a behavior through an ABA lens ask 3 questions about the conditions surrounding the behavior:
What happened before the behavior, or what was the antecedent, or trigger, which led to the behavior?
How would you define the behavior?
What happened after the behavior, or what was the response in consequence of the behavior?
Typically called A-B-C, this chain of events can be manipulated by adjusting the antecedents and consequences, which will cause a change in the defined behavior. We teach the child to respond to a specific antecedent with a specific behavior which we then reinforce as a consequence of the behavior. It is the consequence after the behavior that makes it more or less likely that the behavior will happen the next time the stimulus, or “trigger” is present.
The A-B-C chain can be applied across a multitude of activities and events. We use it in teaching all of the time, whether it is for toilet learning, learning to swim, or learning to articulate a certain set of speech sounds. In the last case, the speech pathologist models the appropriate way to say a speech sound, listens to the child’s rendering of the speech sound, and reinforces it or not, depending on how it was produced. If the child’s rendition showed a change in his typical production of the sound, or a replacement behavior, she would reinforce it with verbal praise or a token of some significance to the child. If the child’s rendition showed no change, she would re-present the speech model, perhaps changing the rate of presentation, or emphasizing the specific oral structure that should be used, making it clear or simpler so that his following attempt would be more successful and deserving of the positive reinforcement which will increase the probability that the changing behavior will recur.
The next time your child’s behavior breaks down, ask yourself what caused the behavior and what you may have done to reinforce it. Look at the environmental triggers that you can manipulate to prevent the behavior breakdown, decide on a replacement behavior, and determine how to reinforce it. By the way, if you are in the habit of saying “good job,” replace it with specific praise, e.g., “You really worked hard to get your tongue in the right place to say /t/.”
Brendan O’Connor Webster, M.A., CCC, BCS-CL