The ABCs of behavior: why your child acts out

Parenting science: the ABCs of behavior

Why is my kid acting this way?

Why can’t my child just behave?

Sounds familiar? We’ve all felt the unique frustration that comes on the heels of a tantrum, or worse. But despite this universal truth, talking about behavior, especially children’s behavior, is something that can really cause anxiety for parents. 

Good news! Behaviors always happen for a reason.

All behavior is communication from your child.

It’s all science…parenting science. It might not be possible in the moment of frustration, but step back, and you can begin to see behavior as a signal. It is feedback to you, the parent, about what things are working for your child and what things aren’t. Begin to see behavior not as good or bad…or downright ugly. Try to embrace every behavior as a clue to help you best interact with your child for their success now and in the future.

Behavior ABCs

In behavior analysis, we use the ABC model of behavior to help us analyze the signs we get from our children’s behavior. You might have guessed that the B stands for behavior. The A stands for antecedents and the C stands for consequences

This sounds complicated, but we are just talking about what happens before and what happens after the behavior. Sometimes people say that antecedents are triggers and consequences are punishment, which sounds kind of ominous. In fact, the ABCs are neither positive nor negative. It’s as simple as this: something happens before, then a behavior occurs, and then something happens after.

It’s powerful to understand how antecedents and consequences interact with behavior because 1. antecedents and consequences help us analyze and understand the behavior better, and 2. antecedents and consequences are part of the environment and that means we can control and change them to affect the behavior.

Parenting science: the ABCs in action

An ABC chart is a systematic way for behavior analysts to understand what is happening before and after a behavior. This is one of the first tools behavior analysts might use to begin to understand the function of behavior. 

Let’s say your child has become a world-class, gold medal fit-thrower. An ABC chart will start to shine the light on what’s happening around the tantrums that could be changed.

Let’s look at an actual ABC chart and do some analysis. This is an example of one child’s tantrum behavior, which looked like stomping, growling and sometimes crying. Parents wanted to stop this behavior at home, but they had tried everything and didn’t understand why the behavior was still happening.





1/11/17; 4:35 pm

Mom says: “Time to do work.”

Crying, stomping,

Sent to her room to “calm down”

1/11/17; 5:00 pm

Gets out of the swing before the timer goes off


Momentary escape from task, returned to task with blocking

1/11/17; 5:21 pm

Prompted “Nice hands” when putting hands in pants

Stomping, growling,

Complies with demand

1/11/17; 5:30 pm

Tries to leave trampoline

Stomping, growling,

Blocked from escaping task

1/17/17; 4:30 pm

Food not ready

Stomping, growling,

Sent to time out

1/17/17; 4:35 pm

Food not ready

Stomping, growling,

Sent to her room

1/17/17; 4:45 pm

Prompted to stop playing a game and work on the Ipad


Mom chooses a different game

1/18/17; 4:35 pm

Prompted to pronounce word correctly


Pronounces word correctly

1/18/17; 4:53 pm

Denied more cheerios


Does not get more cheerios

1/18/17; 4:57pm

Chooses homework, but refuses to come to the table

Growling, stomping

Prompted to come to the table

1/18/17; 5:24 pm

Reading books with mom


Reading continues

1/18/17; 6:00 pm

Blocked from leaving an activity


Blocking continues

1/18/17; 4:35 pm

Mom says “get out of the kitchen

Stomping, growling,

Leaves the kitchen

1/18/17; 6:37 pm

Tablet taken away

Growling, bouncing forcefully on the couch

Chooses another activity

1/18/17; 5:24 pm

Reading books with mom


Reading continues

1/18/17; 7:10 pm

Told to continue washing during shower


Shower continues

1/18/17; 7:46 pm

Told she can’t have the tablet


Tablet removed

If you were to fill in a chart such as this, you would begin to see some patterns emerging. For your first clue, look at the antecedent column (or the things that happened before the behavior in question). We can see when the behavior is likely to occur and when it is not likely to occur. We can also analyze other things, like who is likely to be present when the behavior occurs and where the behavior might be likely to occur. Look at what is missing from the antecedent column: is attention missing? Is it a tangible? Is the child doing something they would rather not do? Reading these clues allows us to determine how we can change behavior.

So, then we can look at the consequence column. When we analyze what happens after the behavior, we can ask questions about what the behavior might achieve for the child, if the child is rewarded in any way for that behavior, and what the child might be trying to communicate with the behavior. When looking at the consequence column, it is helpful to see if anything that occurs lines up with a function: does it give attention, does it allow escape, or perhaps does it give access to a tangible?

By answering these questions and sorting the antecedents and consequences, we can begin to see some patterns emerging, and, from this pattern, a parenting science plan can be developed to change the behavior. It is likely that the plan will include things like teaching replacement behaviors that help the child get what they need in a more constructive way and rearranging the environment so that exposure to the antecedent is eliminated or lessened. 

It will also include purposeful delivery of consequences.

Remember, consequences are not the same thing as punishment.

We are not talking about punishment at all, but rather simply the thing that comes after the behavior. 

One of the goals of understanding behavior is for the parent to not inadvertently feed a problematic behavior the exact thing it needs to grow. Rather, learn from the sequence to nurture to the behaviors you want to see thriving in your child.

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Parenting science: the ABCs of behavior


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