Analyzing behavior


One of the components of a functional behavior analysis (FBA) or any systematic study of behavior is to note what happened prior to the event, what the behavior looked liked, and what happened after the behavior. The acronym "ABC" in this case stands for "Antecedent, Behavior, Consequences."

If you were to try to conduct an ABC analysis, you might set up a three-column chart, as shown below in the example. For purposes of the example below, let's assume that Johnny doesn't start tasks promptly and we need a better understanding of what's going on so that we can develop a plan for him. Only three entries are presented in the example below, but there would be many more in an actual case, with observations taken or sampled over a number of days.




Day 1 8:49 A.M., classroom.

Mrs. K. gives the class math worksheets, reviews the instructions, and asks them to get started.

Johnny sits at his desk, but doesn't start.

8:51: Mrs. K talks to him and shows him how to do the first problem, writing in the answer for him. She walks away. Johnny continues to sit there.

8:54: most students are working on the math sheet except for Johnny and one other student.

8:56: Mrs. K. comes back and talks to Johnny again. She does the second problem with him, and then says "Very good -- now please do the rest of the sheet and show me when you're done!" She walks away, and Johnny puts down his pencil.

9:02 Class done with sheet. Johnny has not done anything.

Day 1 10:22 A.M., classroom.

Mrs. K. gives the class spelling worksheets, reviews the instructions, and asks them to get started.

Johnny picks up his pencil and starts within 30 seconds.

Johnny finishes the worksheet by 10:25. Mrs. K. walks over and compliments him on how well he did.

Day 1 11:33 A.M., classroom.

Mrs. K. asks the students to put their materials away and line up to go to Music.

Johnny continues working on the last worksheet.

11:34: Mrs. K. says, "Johnny, please stop now, clear your desk, and line up for Music." Johnny says, "In a second.... I have to finish this." Mrs. K. responds, "You can finish it later. We need to go to Music now." Johnny continues working.

11:35 The class leaves for Music. Johnny is still at his desk, working. Mrs. K. comes over to help him clear his desk.

In conducting an ABC analysis, it's essential that you identify what preceded the behavior, what the behavior looked like and how long it lasted, and what the consequences were. This is no place to interpret or characterize the behavior -- simply note the conditions as objectively as if someone else were observing and reporting.


As someone who spent years training in behavioral principles and technology, I am often dismayed and stunned at how many people think that they are qualified to perform behavioral analysis even though they've had no formal training, experience, or credentials. In my experience, those who aren't properly trained tend to conduct inadequate assessments. They may not record important information, may characterize instead of objectively report, and may not even know what is significant to record.

One of the biggest mistakes untrained behavior analysts make is to form a firm hypothesis before they start collecting any data. The danger in this is that their hypothesis or belief colors the type of data or information that they collect, and they tend to characterize the behavior instead of seeing it through more objective eyes. One common example of this is the situation in which a student's teacher wants to target a particular behavior for intervention and characterizes the behavior as "attention-seeking."  Upon further analysis, it often becomes clear to me that the teacher is confusing her response with the student's motivation or other factors controlling the behavior. In such situations, it is often the case that when the student engages in the behavior, the teacher responds to it and the behavior stops for a bit, leading the teacher to (often erroneously) conclude that the behavior was intended to elicit attention. Such circular thinking does not lead to appropriate interventions.

Although I cannot teach teachers how to become expert behavior analysts, I think that if you keep one thought in mind as you start to collect data before any intervention, it may improve your outcomes:

Pay as much (or even more) attention to what was going on before the behavior occurred than what happened after the behavior occurred. While the consequences may be maintaining the behavior, they are usually not the source of the behavior if the behavior is related to the student's neurobehavioral disorders.








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