ABC’s of Child Behavior

The Importance of Knowing Your ABC’s: Understanding and shaping your child’s behaviors


Adults always have a reason as to why they do the things they do, and children are no different. Contrary to what many of us like to believe, kids don’t cry, whine, tantrum, or act silly “just because.” In reality, all behavior occurs for a reason. As a parent or a caregiver, we want the children in our lives to follow directions and behave in certain ways, yet we know that this is not always the case. Sometimes they don’t make the best choices and it is our responsibility to teach them which behaviors are appropriate and which are not.


Most of the time, a child’s behavior can be broken down into 3 categories: attention, access (i.e., TV, iPad, phone, toys, food, etc.) or escape (e.g., avoid a task or situation). In order to understand what a child is trying to communicate or why they may be acting the way they are and how to handle it, we must consider the A-B-C’s of behavior or the antecedent, behavior, and consequence.


  • Antecedents are a thing or event that exists or occurs before a behavior.


  • Behaviors are the observable events (e.g., what is said and done) that are presented by a person.


  • Consequences are things or events that follow a behavior.


If a child is displaying a problematic behavior, first, consider what led up to the particular behavior. Are they hungry or tired? Was something taken away from them? Are they in a situation they aren’t fond of? Next, think about what aspect of the behavior needs to change or what would be a more appropriate behavior and how it can be reinforced. Are they not sharing toys? Teaching them to say please and thank you, or asking for a turn could be appropriate alternatives. Lastly, choose an appropriate consequence. Excitedly praise a child for sharing or remove access to the item if they don’t share. It is important to remember that consequence and punishment are not synonymous. Consequences follow a behavior and affect the future probability of it occurring. They can increase the rate of, decrease the rate of, or may even have a neutral effect on, a behavior.


Finally, keep in mind that for the best results on dealing with a problematic behavior (or reinforcing a good behavior!), the consequence must occur immediately after the behavior is presented. If there is a delay between a behavior and consequence, another behavior may occur and the consequence may then reinforce the latter behavior.