What are the ABCs of Behavior?

The ABC’s of behavior is a model of behavior modification that is often used in educational and therapeutic settings with both children and adults. It stands for the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence model of behavior.  It is implemented to direct or change specific behaviors by noting what triggers the behavior and the results of the behavior. It is a descriptive assessment that is completed as part of a functional behavior assessment.  Keep reading to discover more about the ABC behavior model, how it works and why practitioners have embraced it.

About the ABC’s of Behavior

The ABC model of behavior is used to understand and modify particular behaviors, which then allows them to be addressed and changed. What are the ABCs of behavior?  Let’s break down each piece of this approach.


The antecedent refers to what happens to provoke or cause the behavior in question. The antecedent could be any number of things, from a particular event to an interaction with another party. Antecedents can be both negative and positive. A negative trigger leads to an unwanted behavior occurring, while a positive one can influence desired actions.  Common antecedents that can trigger maladaptive behavior include:

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  • unstructured time
  • transitions
  • environmental stimuli
  • denial of a preferred activity or item

When thinking about the antecedent, it’s important to consider:

  • Where the behavior occurred
  • When the behavior happened
  • Who was near the individual when the behavior occurred
  • What was going on in the environment


The behavior of interest or target behavior is what is being analyzed in each scenario. Behaviors can be positive or problematic.  Positive behaviors are those that are beneficial to an individual or the people around them.  Some examples of desired behavior include:

  • Raising a hand in a classroom when a child wants to speak
  • Picking up toys after they’ve been played with
  • Wiping a table after lunch

Problematic behaviors are those that cause problems for the individual.  These problems could be severe (a threat to health and safety) or counterproductive.  In a child with autism, problematic behaviors could look like avoidance of certain tasks or self-injurious behavior.  Problematic behaviors could appear as poor food choices or physical inactivity.

It is very important that the behavior being observed is clearly defined when using the ABC model.  The assessor needs to create an operational definition so that anyone collecting ABC data understands clearly what behavior is being tracked.  It’s best for the assessor to create examples and non-examples for the student’s behavior.


The behavior consequence is what happens because of the behavior being analyzed. Consequences can be used to either encourage or extinguish the behavior, depending on whether that behavior is desired or unwanted.  It’s important to understand the impact consequences can have on an individual.

  • Weight loss can be a consequence of eating better or increasing physical activity
  • Increased class participation is a consequence of raising your hand to speak
  • Arriving on time to an event is a consequence of leaving your house a few minutes early

Sometimes, a consequence ends up being misused.  If a child starts throwing a tantrum at the checkout of a grocery store, a parent might hand them a treat to calm them down.  The action is intended to stop the problem behavior but may actually increase the chance of another tantrum the next time the child goes through the grocery store line.

Some Examples of Antecedents, Behaviors, and Consequences

Example 1– The teacher gives a student an assignment (A).  The student throws the assignment on the floor (B).  The teacher asks the student to pick up the paper (C).

Example 2– A soccer coach assigns a pre-season training regimen to the players (A).  The players complete the training regimen as prescribed (B).  The team is in physically conditioned to begin practice when the season starts (C).

In the first situation, data collection would provide some important information about the behavior (throwing an assignment) and its level of disruption.  This additional information could be helpful when creating a positive behavior support plan or another strategy to help the student be successful in the classroom.

In the second situation, the targeted behavior is very clear.  There is a specific training regimen students should follow to prepare for the upcoming season.  The consequence in this situation is positive, the players are ready for the season.

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What Does ABC Analysis Look Like?

Psychology Today shares how the ABCs of behavior analysis gives practitioners, teachers or therapists a great deal of insight into the behavior.  It helps provide the needed information regarding how to manage that behavior. By observing each part of the model, professionals are able to gain the data necessary to do a functional assessment of a client’s situation. When they have this pertinent data, they can then determine the cause or trigger of the behavior and what to do to increase or decrease it.

It’s relatively easy to collect this data.  It’s important to collect data on multiple instances to ensure accuracy and gain clarity.  There are three simple steps for effective ABA data collection.

  1. Write down, in detail, what occurs prior to a behavior (the antecedent)
  2. Describe the behavior itself
  3. Note in detail what happens afterward (consequence)

These steps to ABA data collection should be taken each time the behavior occurs in order to look for patterns and to know whether actions to change the behavior are working.

How is the ABC Model Used in Functional Analysis?

Functional behavior analysis (FBA) is a way to identify and understand behavior.  It’s a step in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, breaking down respondent and operant conditioning to identify the relationship between a stimuli and response.  The ABC model is a type of FBA used to gather information on behaviors that need to be changed.

The ABCs of behavior is considered an observational, or direct, functional assessment.  This means that the individual is observed in their natural environment.  This means that individuals the child normally interacts with are included in the observation.  In a classroom setting, that might include the teacher or the aide.  At home, that might include parents and siblings.  The ABC Model can be used to help create a positive behavior support plan.

Benefits of the ABCs of Behavior Model

The main advantage of the ABC model of behavior is that it is so easy to record. Data is collected in the individual’s natural environment.  A parent doesn’t need to make an appointment with a behavior analyst to implement the ABC approach.  They can collect data at home on an identified behavior and share the information with the child’s support team.

While the method may be straightforward and simple, its implications are vast. Another benefit to this approach is that it is easily translatable to those outside of the original scenario. Professionals can share observations about a client’s behavior in a way that is understood even by those who weren’t present during the original interaction. Those people can then use the information gleaned to replicate the results of the ABC behavior data tracking and behavior plan created with that information.

Challenges of the ABC Model

One of the biggest challenges of the ABC Model is that it takes time.  It takes time to complete enough data to form a conclusion.  Multiple sessions must be completed before clear patterns emerge.  Another challenge is that the Model is correlational and does not provide confirmation that the target behavior is a response to the antecedent.  When a clear conclusion isn’t possible, a mental health professional can be brought in to assist or complete a full functional analysis.


When behavior change is desired, this approach is an effective method to use. The ABC of behavior approach has been used successfully by teachers, counselors, therapists and other helping professionals to direct and modify both positive and negative behaviors in a variety of settings.