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consequence

The ABCs of Challenging Behavior

By | Nesca Notes 2023

By: Erin Gibbons, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

When a child or adolescent is exhibiting challenging behaviors, it is helpful to understand why the behaviors are occurring. The first step is to analyze the situational factors surrounding the behaviors:

A: Antecedent. What is happening right before the behavior occurred?
B: Behavior. What is the specific behavior that the child/adolescent exhibited?
C: Consequence. What happened right after the behavior occurred?

By looking at the ABCs of a particular behavior, we can start to understand the function of the behavior. That is to say, why is the child/adolescent engaging in the behavior? How is the behavior being reinforced?

Let’s look at an example:
Tom is in 6th grade. He arrives to math class, and the teacher distributes a worksheet. Tom rips up the math sheet and throws it on the floor. The teacher sends him to principal’s office.

A: Math class, being given a worksheet
B: Ripping up the paper
C: Being sent to the principal/leaving the class

In this example, the aversive situation might be math class itself, it could be the worksheet, or it could be the specific concept being worked on (e.g., multiplication is hard for Tom). Alternatively, something might have happened right before math class that upset him.

The consequence is that Tom is allowed to avoid the problematic situation. Thus, the teacher is inadvertently reinforcing the behavior. Tom has learned that if he refuses to do the work, he gets to leave class.

The more effective intervention would be to understand why he refused the work. In this case, it would be important to have a conversation with Tom. Was the work too hard? Does he need extra explanation of the concepts being covered in the worksheet? Did something happen before math class that Tom was still upset about? If the teacher is not able to engage him in this type of conversation, perhaps it would be better to send him to the school counselor as opposed to the principal.

As you think about your own children, it might be helpful to consider the ABCs of any challenging behaviors that are occurring. What was happening right before? If you can identify antecedents, you might be able to make some concrete environmental changes in order to avoid the behavior. What happened right afterward? Did your reaction to the behavior somehow reinforce it? Could you do something different next time the behavior occurs that would be more effective?

Resources
The Explosive Child by Ross Greene
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
The Behavior Code Companion by Jessica Minahan

 

About the Author

Erin Gibbons, Ph.D., evaluates children presenting with a range of attentional, learning, and developmental disabilities. She has a particular interest in children with autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, and those with complex medical histories.

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NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham, Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; and the greater Burlington, Vermont region, serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.