The ABC’s of Behavior

Next Lesson:

Observe and Describe

Where to begin

Understanding the ABCs of behavior will help you know how to best teach your child new behaviors. Children move through behaviors in three stages: Antecedent (before), Behavior (during), and Consequences (afterward). Children can change their behaviors during any of these stages but the approach is the same. The lessons on Smarter Parenting are designed to help in all stages of child behaviors. It is important for a parent to identify which lesson is most effective at what time to optimize the greatest change in behavior for you child.

This chart helps you determine what skill you should use and when. As with most things, addressing problems before they occur (if possible) is always best. If not, parents have options on what to do when negative behavior happens.


Antecedents refers to things that happen before a specific behavior occurs.

If your child throws a tantrum in a grocery store, a parent can evaluate what is happening before the tantrum happens. They can ask the following questions:

What is my child doing before he throws the tantrum?

Where is my child before the tantrum?

What other things happened before my child began to have the tantrum behavior?

Answering these questions will give a parent ample opportunity to teach their child what they should do BEFORE the tantrum occurs. The skill of Preventive Teaching is most helpful in this situation.

Parenting Tip: It is recommended to try and work with your child in the area of the Antecedent. This area allows both parent and child to remain calm, and where the parent and child relationship is most powerful. This is not always possible. If your child escalates, you can use the other skills to address and teach to their behavior.


Once the child is behaving inappropriately it is time to correct the negative behavior using the skill of Correcting Behaviors. It is more difficult during this phase for your child to make changes to their behavior but it is possible by following the steps of the skill.

Parents should remain calm during this part of the interaction as losing their cool will aggravate the situation.

Helpful tip: Parents need to know there may be a time when teaching is not going to produce the desired result. If your child continues to be resistant beyond their ability to change, it may be best to let the issue rest. We are not suggesting you forget it. We are recommending that you wait for a time to allow you and your child to calm down before returning to it in the future.


Smarter Parenting recommends you and your child visit the issue of their negative behavior together using the skill of Decision Making (SODAS Method)to determine a consequence for the negative behavior. We also recommend that using the skill, both parent and child, determine how to resolve the issue if it arises again. By working together, it is possible to help your child change and shape their negative behaviors for the better.

Help, Activities, and Testimonials

Research articles on the ABC’s of behavior

To further understand the ABC’s of behavior you can read the following articles.

University of Kansas has research on the ABC’s of behavior and why it’s important to be versed in the the ABC’s.

Collaborative Analysis also uses the ABC’s of behavior technique in helping parents understand how to change their child’s behavior.

The following activity can be used to help your child understand the concept of the ABC’s of behavior.

ABC chain and a twist

How to use this activity

This game allows you and your child the opportunity to discuss how situations or events a linked to their behavior and how that behavior leads to consequences. Using a situation where your child struggles, have them write down on three strips of paper the ABC’s of behavior—antecedent, behavior, consequence for that situation. In a twist, you can do the same activity but project it for a future time. Have the child write down the same situation but have them put down the desired outcome they hope happens on the strip of paper labeled consequences. The parent then fills in the behavior the child will need to have in order for them to reach that consequence. It’s a simple activity that requires very little time or expense but can yield a lot of positive interaction between parents and children. In another twist you can also do this for your child going throughout a morning, afternoon or day and show how all the behaviors and consequences are linked together.

​Here are some helpful hints on how to use this concept for a specific situation.

What if my child pushes another child?

Siope talks through a situation a parent is bound to encounter and how to use the ABC’s of behavior.

Ready to go further?

Sign up for the Smarter Parenting Club and gain access to additional resources, and most importantly, individualized coaching to assist you on your parenting journey.

Downloadable Resources and Worksheets

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Skills The ABC’s of Behavior