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Handling Problematic Behaviors

Getting your child to be more compliant by knowing the ABC of behaviors

Very often, I am faced with question from parents and teachers, asking what to do if you are faced with a certain scenario or behavior.

It is not easy to answer such question until I know more about the child like his obsessions if any, is he highly sensory, what motivates him, has he got fear or failure etc.

It is always hard to tell me everything about your child within the brief moment we have. I decided that is it best to teach you how to work out your own behavioral management strategy.

In behaviorism, when we talk about behaviors, we always often talk about the ABC of behaviors.


A – Antecedents (the trigger or what happened before the behavior)
B – Behavior (usually the negative behavior that you want to change)
C – Consequence (what follows the behavior, did you reinforce it or did you give a negative consequence to it)

An Illustration of ABC of behaviors


To tackle a behavior, we either tackle the A or the C. For example a behavior of the child pushing down the blocks when it is stacked up.

There are two ways to change this behavior of ‘boy pushes block’.


Solution 1: Remove the Antecedent


So a way to tackle this behavior is to remove the antecedent, which in this case is to not have any blocks stacked up when the child is around. When the child does not see any blocks stacked up in front of him, then he will not push the blocks.


Solution 2: Tackle the consequence

In the theory of behaviorism, the chances of the behavior happening again is lower if we pair the behavior up with a negative consequence and vice versa for pairing up with a positive consequence. Below is an illustration:

When the child SEES A PLAYROUND (Antecedent), he CHOOSES THE SWING (Behavior). However there were 2 outcomes.

  • Outcome 1: He played happily and enjoyed it very much (POSITIVE)
  • Outcome 2: He fell and hurt himself (NEGATIVE)

Again under the theory of behaviorism, the boy is more likely to choose to play with the swing the next time for outcome 1 and less likely to play with the swing again for outcome 2.

Back to the behavior of boy pushing blocks that are stacked up. In this case, we can simply give a natural consequence of the child having to pick up the items that he swept off back up to where it was. If the child doesn’t enjoy picking up items (negative consequence), he is more likely to not do it again.

It is very important that you know if the consequence that is given is positive, negative or neutral TO THE CHILD. It doesn’t matter what you think. It is what the child thinks. You may think that having to pick things up may be something that the child does not enjoy. From my years of experience, there are children that do not mind picking things up so it may be a neutral consequence to these kids and the behavior is paired with a neutral consequence instead of a negative consequence. That is why it is hard to tell you exactly what is the strategy you should adopt until I know the child myself.

Which method will you choose?

Removing A is an easy way to prevent the behavior from happening however this does not solve the root of the problem. We do not have full control of the environment and is very likely that the child is bound to see some blocks stacked up when he or she goes to school, a toy shop etc.

At this point, it may seem that we should always change the C, Consequence instead of A, Antecedent. Let me give you an example of when do I usually change the A instead of C.

I usually will change the A instead of C when the Antecedent is stress. Imagine a 3 year old child is given a 15 piece block design task. Each time he sees such a task, he got stressed up and start exhibiting self-hitting behaviors. Then we tried to manage this behavior with a negative consequence.

We have given the child a task that is beyond him and set him up for failure and yet we penalized him for not being able to do something that is highly unlikely for a 3 year old to comprehend. For such, I will change the A by maybe giving him a 5 piece block designs and slowly build it up.


Ultimately, we want a child to behave well because he or she is working towards a positive reward or the desire to please you and not because he or she is not looking forward for the negative consequence.

This is not the end. Many a times we conveniently work on the A and the C, not knowing why has A caused the behavior. It is not easy but we should always attempt to do the functional analysis of behavior, in another words, we should look into why has A caused B. I remembered many years ago, I came across a case whereby this child is very resistant towards tasks that require him to listen. The therapists working with the child thought that it was a form of task avoidance and gave negative consequence to the child each time he avoids doing it. I requested for a hearing check and we realized that the child is severely deaf. That is why he was so frustrated each time receptive tasks were being done.

For children with desire to please and higher cognitive capacity, we may choose to use the cognitive approach instead whereby we try to talk to the child and analyze what he should or should not do.


This article is contributed by Zhang Liyuan

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