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The ABC's of Behavior Modification

Updated on February 13, 2012

As parents we may find ourselves faced with our children's inappropriate behavior, actions that leave us feeling self concious and pressured to gain control of quickly. However some of the "quick fixes" can often cause more harm than good, causing a behavior to sustain or even get worse. The techniques used in Applied Behavior Analysis are commonly associated with the Autistic population but are equally relevant to a typically developing child, a spouse, a co-worker, or even an in-law. A common concern of the families I work with is how to change a particular behavior that their child displays. Whether it's getting them to move from the "family bed", separate with ease when being dropped off at school, or being able to reduce the intensity and frequency of tantrum behaviors, it all starts with the ABC's of Behavior Modification - Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence.

Antecedent - This refers to the events leading up to a particular behavior. What is occurring right before the behavior is displayed?

Behavior - Take a moment to list the actions involved in the behavior. How intense is it? How often does it occur? How long does it last?

Consequence - What occurs right after the behavior is displayed? Does the consequence positively or negatively reinforce the behavior? Does the consequence send a clear message as to how the behavior is perceived by others?

In the field of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) there are a number of core principles, 3 of them being: (1) All behavior can be decreased or increased by manipulating the consequences.(2) Reinforcement is anything that increases a behavior.(3) All behavior has an antecedent, something that initiates the onset of a particular reaction. So let's apply the ABC's of Behavior Modification to some common behaviors we would like to change.

Behavior Problem #1: Jordan cannot separate appropriately from his mother when being brought to school in the morning

Antecedent - Jordan's mother carries him in her arms into the classroom telling him not to worry and that mommy loves him and will miss him all day. She removes his outer clothing, hangs up his belongings for him and gives him a long hug goodbye.

Behavior - Jordan begins to cry, clings to his mothers body. He begs her not to go.

Consequence - Mother assures him that she will stay 5 more minutes just to make sure he is safe and ok.

So what went wrong with Jordan and his mom? What did Jordan learn from the consequences his mother employed? Very simply "If i cry and cling, mommy will stay longer". Will those consequences help Jordan to increase or decrease his levels of anxiety upon separation? How could the antecedent have been changed to create a less "clingy" situation? Perhaps Jordan's mother could have walked him into class rather than carrying him. Maybe having him hang his belongings and praising him for doing so would have made him feel more independent. Further, she may have needed to adopt a less anxious demeanor herself, modeling for her child that this separation is "no big deal".

Behavior Problem #2: Your teen leaves wet bath towels on the bathroom floor to ferment.

Antecedent - A stack of neatly folded fresh towels are available to her/him as they finish bathing.

Behavior - The teen dries him/herself then carelessly allows the towel to drop to the floor.

Consequence - The parent verbally admonishes the young adult while picking up the towel and putting it in the hamper that is filled with laundry which they are about to do. The towel gets washed by the parent while the teen gets an earful.

Based on the consequence, is the teen more or less likely to repeat this behavior in the future? While they audibly heard the reprimanding tone of the frustrated parent, they weren't being held accountable for their actions based on the consequences given. Perhaps the teen can be given their own hamper, that when filled is their responsibility to launder.

Before conditioning any behavior in our favor, it is beneficial to step back from the situation and look at it with an analytical eye. Breaking a situation down to the ABC's of Behavior Modification can help us understand the role we play in the behaviors of others that trouble us.


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    • Silver Q profile image

      Silver Q 

      6 years ago

      Good Hub!

      Very simple and super useful! I know by experience that these techniques really work, but parents need to be constant in implementing them. Voted up and useful! Keep writing useful hubs such as this one!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Good, yet simple, advice.


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