The A-B-Cs ofManaging Challenging Behaviors – by Debra G. Salzman, Ph.D.
“My child just does not listen.”
“We fight about getting ready in the morning and going to bed.”
“Homework time is a struggle.”
“My child has a meltdown when I ask him/her to do anything.”
Does this sound familiar? Although these are common complaints heard from parents, there is no need to feel hopeless about change. Parents can effectively manage challenging behaviors exhibited by their children simply by remembering the A-B-C’s.
A-B-C refers to “antecedents,” “behaviors,” and “consequences,” three essential components necessary in understanding behavior change.
Before you can decide on an effective intervention, you must define the behavior – the “b” you would like to change. For example, if you want to eliminate tantrums, you must first carefully define what a tantrum is: kicking, screaming, yelling and crying. This becomes your “operational definition” of the behavior.
Once you have defined the behavior, you will need to determine its frequency, duration and intensity. For example, how often do the tantrums occur (5 times a day for 15 minutes at a time?) How intense are they (Would you typically rate them as a 3 in intensity on a 1 to 5 scale?) This information is necessary for determining the success of your intervention. You always need to know where you started so you can see how far you have come.
Next, it is essential to determine the antecedents – the “A” – of the target behavior. Antecedents refer to that which comes before the behavior, and answer the questions: “Why did my child have a tantrum in the first place?” “What is my child’s goal with this behavior?” Antecedents can be quite varied, but they provide valuable information that can help you understand your child’s motivation for exhibiting the behavior. The four most common motivations for behavior are escape, attention, sensory and tangible. Escape is when a child attempts to avoid an activity or task (having a tantrum when asked to clean up his or her room). Attention refers to the child seeding attention from adults or peers (tantrum occurs while a parent is on the phone). Sensory refers to the child receiving a sensory benefit from the behavior (thumb-sucking). Lastly, the child may engage in the negative behavior in order to get something tangible, such as a toy or food (tantrum occurs when the child asks for a cookie and is told no) or to continue to have something they prefer (tantrum occurs when the child is told it is time to leave an amusement park).
The “C” in the A-B-C equation refers to the consequences of the target behavior, and answers the question: What happens when the target behavior occurs?” For example, did the child get the cookie or avoid doing homework? When the child’s goals are met, he or she learns that the negative behavior gets positive results, and will likely continue to engage in that behavior.
Choosing the appropriate intervention must take into account the child’s motivation. Parents need to make sure they are not inadvertently rewarding their child’s challenging behavior. For example, if our child tantrums while you are on the phone, ignoring your child (i.e., not getting off the phone at that time) teaches him or her that a tantrum is not a way to get your attention, and over time, will decrease the likelihood of a tantrum in the future. Ignoring the behavior will not work if there is a different motivation, however. For example, if you ask your child to clean his or her room and your child has a tantrum that you ignore, the child has effectively escaped the task (cleaning their room) and has achieved his or her desired motivation. Your child will not clean up his or her room and has learned that throwing a tantrum can help avoid unpleasant tasks.
In addition to considering the A-B-Cs of behavior, parents also need to make sure their child knows what is expected of them. For example, your child may not know what to do while waiting for you to get off the phone. By teaching your child appropriate things to do while he or she is waiting for you, you can achieve positive results.
Behavior change is never easy. With consistency, praise forappropriate behavior and patience, you can achieve success changing and managing your child’s behavior.