Antecedent: A Specific Meaning for Analyzing Difficult Behaviors

Student launching rubber band
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In preparing a functional behavior analysis, special educators, behavior specialists and psychologists use an acronym, ABC, to understand a target behavior. The A stands for antecedent, the B for behavior, and the C for consequence. ABC is a fundamental concept for those working with children, particularly students with special needs.

Antecedent Definition

To understand the definition of ABC, it's important to know the meaning of each of its component parts. Antecedents are events or environments that trigger a behavior, and the behavior is an action that is both observable and measurable that is generally provoked or induced by the antecedent. The consequence, then, is the response to the student’s behavior, generally by the teacher, counselor, or school psychologist.

Put in more basic terms, the antecedent involves something that is said to the student, something the student observes, or, often, a situation in which the student is placed. Any of these things can then evoke a behavior by the student, such as acting out, throwing a tantrum, screaming, or just shutting down. The consequence is not necessarily—or even preferably—a punishment. Instead, a consequence is what educators or others impose on the student after the behavior. Education and behavior experts note that the best consequence is one that redirects, rather than punishes.

The ABC concept is important because it causes educators, counselors, and others involved to loop back to the antecedent and try to determine what in the environment or situation might have provoked the behavior. Since the behavior must be observable and measurable, using the ABC concept takes emotion out of the equation.

Examples of Antecedents

Before delving into gathering information about antecedents, it's helpful to view some examples of antecedents. These are environmental or even physical situations that can initially spark undesirable behaviors:

Invasion of personal space: Students, or really anyone for that matter, can react negatively when someone invades their space. It's important to give students adequate physical space in which to complete their tasks.

Excessive visual or auditory stimuli: Students with autism, but other students also, can become overwhelmed when there is too much auditory stimulation, such as loud noises, excessive talking by peers, the teacher, or members of a class, overly loud music, or even environmental noise, such as nearby construction sounds. Visual stimulation can have the same effect; often this might be too many pictures and other items on the walls of a classroom that can easily distract some students.

An unpleasant texture from clothing: Autistic students, again, may be prone to this. A wool sweater, for example, might feel fine to most people, but for some student with autism, it can feel like sandpaper, or even nails, scratching against their skin. It would be hard for anyone to learn under such a condition.

Not understanding the task presented: If directions are unclear, a student might act out in frustration or even anger when they are unable to comprehend what is being asked of them.

Overly demanding tasks: Students with learning disabilities or emotional disorders can also become overwhelmed when the task required seems daunting and unmanageable. To avoid this issue, it can be productive to break up the assignment into smaller tasks. For example, give a student only five or 10 math problems at a time instead of 40.

Unexpected changes in routine: Students of all types, but especially those with special needs, require a strict and predictable routine. If there needs to be a change in the daily schedule, you can often avoid creating an antecedent to an outburst by telling students ahead of time what the change will be and why.

Bullying or taunting: Any person would react badly to bullying, mocking, or taunting, but particularly those with special needs. If a student does experience bullying or taunting, it's best to discuss it openly with the student(s) right away. Lessons on how to stand up to bullying can also be productive.

Questions to Gather Information About the Antecedent

The ABC principal involves collecting or asking the right questions about what might have provoked the behavior. In other words, you need to try to determine what antecedent(s) led to the behavior. Questions might include:

Where does the target behavior occur? This addresses the impact of the environment on the antecedent or setting event. Does it only happen at home? Does it happen in public? Does it only happen in a specific place and not in the other? If the antecedent is school and not home, it probably reflects that little or no demand is put on the child in the other environment. Sometimes, if a student has been abused in a school or residential facility, and the environment looks very much like that setting, the student's behavior might actually be reactive: a means of protecting himself. 

When does the target behavior occur? Does it happen mostly at a certain time of days? Is it perhaps related to the child being tired after working hard to meet demands (near the end of the day)? Could it be related to hunger (at 11 a.m. before lunch)? Could it be related to anxiety about bedtime if it happens in the evening?

Who is present when the target behavior occurs? It is possible for certain people or people dressed in a certain way may trigger a behavior. Perhaps it's people in white coats. If the child has been frightened or undergone a painful procedure at a doctor's office, she may be anticipating a repeat of the experience. Often students, especially students with developmental disabilities, are frightened by people in uniforms if their parents have had to call the police to get assistance with a particularly violent meltdown.

Does something happen just before the target behavior? Is there an event that triggers the behavior? A student may respond in fear to something that happens, or even if a peer moves into his space. All of these things may contribute to the "setting event" or antecedent to the event.

How to Use Antecedents in an Educational Setting

An example of ABC in a real-life classroom setting might be as follows:

In the morning upon arrival, when presented with her work folder (antecedent), Sonia throws herself out of her wheelchair (behavior). Clearly, the antecedent is being presented with the work folder, and it happens at the beginning of the day. Knowing that giving Sonia a work folder in the morning provokes exactly the same response every day, it would make sense to create a different antecedent in the morning for Sonia, instead of enforcing a punitive consequence. Instead of giving her a work folder the minute she comes into the classroom, the teacher, or education team, might ask: What does Sonia enjoy?

Suppose Sonia enjoys social interaction, the simple give-and-take of dialogue between a teacher, paraprofessionals, and the student. In that case, to create a better outcome, the educators would present Sonia with different a different activity at the beginning of the day, such as a short, social talk with the teacher and staff. They might ask Sonia what she did last night, what she had for dinner, or what she plans to do over the weekend.

Only after this five-minute discussion would the staff offer Sonia her work folder. If she still exhibits the same behavior—throwing herself out of her wheelchair—the staff would again do an ABC analysis. If Sonia simply doesn't react well to an offer of work first thing in the morning, the staff would try another antecedent, such as changing the setting. Perhaps a brief morning excursion outside on the playground might be the best way to start Sonia's day. Or, giving Sonia her work folder later in the morning, after a talk, excursion outside, or even a song, might lead to a better outcome.

As noted, the key to using ABC is taking emotion out of the equation. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to Sonia's behavior, the staff tries to determine what the antecedent was, what observable behavior occurred, and what consequence was enforced. By manipulating (or changing) the antecedent, the hope is that the student will exhibit a different, more positive behavior, negating the need for a "punitive" consequence.