Do You Know Your ABC?

Do you know your ABC’s? I’m sure you can recite the alphabet (I always do so in song-form), but do you know what they mean for behavioural science? A B C: Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence. Unsurprisingly enough, it’s another behavioural change tool; trying to promote desired behaviours, and trying to demote undesired behaviours. Let’s dive into this one!

If you’re thinking that this theory, or at least the B-C component sounds familiar, it does. ABC actually falls under the umbrella of applied behavior analysis, which is based on the work of B.F. Skinner. Remember him?

If you do remember him you’re probably checking for potential places that could release electric shocks. Skinner is known for his work on operant conditioning (he coined it), and a lot of rats got electrocuted during the development of this theory (ethics was, well, different). Skinner developed a three-term contingency to shape behavior: stimulus, response, and reinforcement. But given that SRR isn’t a great acronym, we now have ABC.

Now operant conditioning and ABC aren’t exact replicas. They’re not twins, more like half-siblings, with the same dad. ABC frames the strategy in terms of education and is predominantly applied in this sector. Instead of the stimulus, there is an antecedent; instead of the response, there is a behavior; and instead of the reinforcement, there is a consequence.

So what does the ABC have to say? How exactly does it differ from SRR? To discuss this, it’s probably best to dive deeper into the meaning of the three separate categories: Antecedent The antecedent is the action, event, or circumstances that led up to the behavior and encompasses anything that might contribute to the behavior. This can also be a very specific trigger. For example, the antecedent may be a direct trigger such as a request, the circumstance of being alone, or having someone else present, or even a change in the environment. Especially in the latter there is a lot to gain from nudging or careful goal-setting through the use of SMART.

Behaviour The behavior refers to what is done in response to the antecedent (event, situation etc.). The behaviour in this case is always undesirable. It can be bad in and of itself, or trigger more bad behaviours, or even worse behaviour. It has to be stated that, within education specifically, the behaviour needs to be operationally defined. This means that the description clearly delineates the topography or shape of the behaviour. You’re going to get into trouble if the parent, the teacher and a psychologist can’t agree on simple definitions…

Consequence The consequence is an action or response that follows the behaviour. A consequence, which is very similar to "reinforcement" in Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, is an outcome that reinforces the child's behaviour or seeks to modify the behavior. While the consequence is not necessarily a punishment or disciplinary action, it can be. Within operant conditioning the first thing you think of is punishment, which can come in two forms: negative and positive: negative punishment being the removal of a stimulus, such as taking someone’s freedom (house arrest, curfew) or taking away their phone (works great with teenagers…). Positive punishment is the addition of a stimulus which isn’t pleasant, such as constant loud noises, waterboarding or physical pain (I went a bit more extreme here, this is not for educational nor childcare purposes).

So what can you do with ABC? Well, as I mentioned before, this is a tool that is used a lot within education, so it can be used to find out why some students are and some aren’t doing well in school. Why some kids have tantrums, why some fall asleep during class. It’s also a tool that can help those with special needs. This article strongly hints at ABC being very useful in helping kids with autism reach desirable behaviours and reduce undesirable ones. If you can find out that a child only has tantrums when sitting next to a specific child, or in a certain spot in the classroom, the solution is obvious. Same goes for the location of study: some people like to have music on Even if the behaviour and the goal are clear, the antecedent and (helpful) consequence might be a bit more difficult to uncover. Unsurprisingly when it comes to behavioural scientific research, you’re going to have to do a bit more experimenting, on either yourself or others (students in this framework) to figure it out.

Have fun!

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