Understanding The Antecedent Behavior Consequence Model

By Sarah Fader

Updated May 09, 2019

Reviewer Kelly Coker, M.B.A., Ph.D., LPC, NCC

The Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Model is an approach that can be used to help people examine behaviors that want to change, the triggers of those behaviors, and the impact of those behaviors on negative or maladaptive patterns.

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Background on the ABC Model

In Applied Behavior Analysis, the antecedent, behavior, and consequence provide considered "building blocks" in understanding, analyzing, and potentially changing how one acts. ABC charts can be used to provide "snapshots" into the situation, potentially enabling further comprehension of the behavior.

An analysis of behavior via an ABC perspective is included in a comprehensive functional assessment of behavior.

"Building Blocks"

So, what is each piece of the ABC Model?

  1. Antecedent

The antecedent refers to the environment or preceding events of the "behavior of interest" or "target behavior" being analyzed. Some also refer to this as the "setting event." Essentially, the antecedent is anything that could be a trigger for the behavior.

The antecedent could be anything from a question from a teacher to the presence of another person. Changes of environment can also be common antecedents.

When attempting to trigger a positive outcome, antecedents can be manipulated to foster certain behaviors. When assessing a negative behavior, antecedents are important because, in some circumstances, the ability to eliminate the antecedent is the ability to eliminate the behavior. Of course, this only applies when antecedents are obscure, such as the presence of a specific doll or television show. When the antecedent is part of daily life, a different approach will be required to putting a stop to the behavior.

  1. Behavior

As mentioned, the behavior is the "behavior of interest" of "target behavior" being analyzed. This can be either a pivotal, positive, or problem behavior. A pivotal behavior is one that leads or contributes to separate problematic behavior. Positive behavior is one that benefits the individual, and those around them. Problem behavior is behavior itself that is causing a problem from distraction to actual danger.

When putting behavior into the ABC model, it is important to define it "operationally." What this means is to describe it in an objective way that even a third-party observer would be able to recognize, without preexisting experience with the individual.

  1. Consequence

The consequence is the outcome of the behavior. The consequence is one of the most important elements, as it is capable of either prolonging or ending the behavior. While consequences are usually thought of as negative, they often encourage the behavior further, causing the cycle to repeat. For positive behaviors, this is the aim; for problem or pivotal to problem behaviors, For positive behaviors, this is the aim; to perpetuate the positive cycle. For negative behaviors, examination of the consequence that perpetuates the negative pattern is helpful in understanding the impact of the negative behavior.

In children, the consequence is crucial as it often inadvertently extends the behavior. Many parents tend to quiet their child by offering toys or sweets, but this enforces the behavior they are trying to end.

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Why Use the ABC Model?

So, why should people use the ABC model? It's relatively simple and can offer insight into one's own or other's behaviors that might otherwise be confusing. It is also required for a functional assessment of behavior and should be compiled for that purpose. It will assist professionals in creating a hypothesis for why a problem behavior is occurring, and how to slow or put an end to it.

Collecting the data in this manner is straightforward, and does not require much time or skill.

How to Collect ABC Data

To collect ABC Data, whether for yourself or others, write down what occurred leading up to the behavior, and what happened right after it (the antecedent and consequence). Be specific in details regarding the behavior.

Do not collect the data only once; it is important to be diligent and write down ABC information whenever the behavior occurs. This will aid not only in the strength of your notes but in analyzing whether or not a behavior plan is becoming effective or not.

Are you a visual person? You can create an Antecedent Behavior Consequence chart simply by creating a table with each building block of the ABC with its column. Each time the behavior occurs, fill out a new row. This will also make for easy comparison between each event. Be sure to date each entry as well!

Here is a sample ABC Chart:

Date Antecedent Behavior Consequence
(Entry 1)
(Entry 2)

When Have I Collected Enough Data?

This is a tough question because it depends entirely on the individual situation. The rule is to continue collecting data until there is sufficient confidence regarding the function or functions keeping the behavior alive. Sometimes this result will be reached in 3-5 sessions when the situation is relatively simple, and the hypothesis is straightforward. However, sometimes observation will need to occur in different settings over long periods of time to understand more complex behavior.

What Happens If I Still Cannot Understand the Behavior?

While the ABC Model is often able to offer insight into a wide range of behaviors, sometimes it will simply be too complicated to assess on your own. In this case, find a professional in your area who has a background in applied behavior analysis or positive behavior support.

Just because you are bringing in an expert does not mean that the collection of data will have been for nothing. Often, experts will be able to analyze the ABC charts created and see a pattern that you couldn't see before. At the very least, it will offer a background of understanding the individual's behavior.

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Advantages of the ABC Model

The ABC Model allows someone is observing the individual to record behaviors easily and clearly, in a manner that can be easily transferred to those who were not present at the time. It is one of the simplest methods of behavioral observation. It also offers insight into the individual's environment.

Disadvantages of the ABC Model

A disadvantage of the model is that it takes time and patience, as recording each instance of the behavior will only begin to yield results after multiple entries. Occasionally, patterns in antecedents and consequences will appear to be unclear, and sometimes an incorrect conclusion will even be drawn.

When there are multiple problem behaviors or antecedent events, summarizing the model will become an increasingly difficult task. In this case, the Functional Assessment Observation Tool may be a more effective method.

The ABC Model data is also only correlational, meaning that it is not possible to confirm causation. Of course, certain observational data regarding behavior, environment, timing, and consequences will be enough to provide sufficient insight into why a behavior may or may not be occurring. If further certainty is required, functional analysis can be utilized in research to manipulate environmental antecedents and consequences systematically.

Common ABC Samples

Much of the behavior that parents and professionals choose to analyze revolves around how children perform in school. Often, small changes to antecedents and consequences within the classroom can change a student's behavior entirely. For example, if a child is struggling to participate in class and the teachers and parents begin to see it as a problem, sometimes slight alterations can make a difference.

If the teacher reminds students to raise their hand to answer a question, sometimes this will spark a desire to participate (altered antecedent). Ample positive feedback after the response to a question (altered consequence) may instill a desire in the student to participate more often. Such behavior may have arisen due to ridicule upon participating in a class discussion previously, so time and patience will be necessary to reverse the effects. By compiling ABC data, one will be able to track if progress is being made.

Source: pxhere.com

In adulthood, the same can concepts can occur. Many struggles with inactivity and poor diet, but few realize that antecedents and consequences are crucial elements of this phenomena. An antecedent may be having a cake in the house, or not giving yourself enough time to exercise. Therefore, your behavior will be to sit around and eat.

However, if you alter the antecedent by not having unhealthy foods available, and change your schedule to make time for physical activity, you will be more likely to engage in the active behavior. The same occurs with consequences. If you work out alone or have a trainer who is not invested in your progress, there will be no positive consequence (except maybe the end of the workout). If you work out with friends or a trainer who is constantly offering praise, the behavior will be enforced.

The ABC Model for Positive Behavior

Only using the ABC Model for problematic behaviors is leaving yourself at a loss, as it can be immensely helpful in triggering and prolonging positive behaviors. Antecedents, like positive or welcoming environments, can be used, followed by consequences of verbal praise or rewards, instilling a desire to repeat the positive actions and behaviors.

Are you or a loved one struggling with a problem behavior? Or, are you looking to foster and prolong certain positive ones? Online professionals can assist you from the comfort of your own home. Simply visit https://www.betterhelp.com/start/.

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