Understanding the Antecedent Behavior Consequence (ABC) Data Model

The Antecedent Behavior Consequence (ABC) Data Model is a strategy used to change student behaviors. It’s used to identify behavior triggers, behavioral actions, and consequences of behavior in order to change problem behaviors. This guide is for teachers who want to learn more about the ABC model, and it shows you when it’s used, how it works, strategies for changing student behavior, and more.

Your Guide for the ABC Data Model

After reading this guide, you should have a basic understanding of how the ABC model can be used to create more desirable behaviors in the classroom. 

  • When Is the ABC Model Used?
  • How Does the ABC Model Work?
  • What Is an Antecedent Strategy?
  • What Is a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)?
  • Best Practices for Changing Student Behavior

When Is the ABC Model Used?

The ABC model is a strategy commonly used during applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy. ABA is an evidence-based therapy intended to improve the lives of people with autism and other disabilities. Using the ABC model as part of its practice, ABA therapy is proven to improve social functioning, daily living skills, language development, and intellectual functioning. The ABC model can also be used by teachers in a general education classroom setting. 

How Does the ABC Model Work?

The ABC model is broken down into three steps. The antecedent which is the trigger or what happens right before a behavior is displayed. The behavior is the action taken. The consequence is what results from the behavior taken or what happens immediately after the behavior. 

It’s common for antecedents, behaviors, and consequences to be recorded on an ABC chart.


The antecedent, or preceding circumstance, is anything that triggers a particular behavior. They can take the form of external triggers like the environment or other people. They can also be internal triggers like feelings or thoughts. Antecedents can trigger either negative behaviors or positive ones.

Ask yourself the following questions to identify a behavior’s antecedent.

  • “When does the behavior occur?”
  • “With whom does the behavior occur?”
  • “Where does the behavior occur?”
  • “What are other teachers or adults doing when the behavior starts?”
  • “What are other students doing when the behavior starts?”
  • “During which activity does the behavior occur?”

You should also consider the following factors when determining a behavior’s antecedent.

  • Proximity of other students
  • Number of students in the area
  • Noise level of the classroom
  • Specific staff members present
  • Environmental factors like open doors, lighting, temperature, etc.


Once the antecedent is identified, the student’s behavior is determined. Behaviors can take the form of verbal responses, physical action, lack of response, or something else. Behaviors are typically classified as problematic, pivotal, or positive.

Problematic behavior is that which causes problems. This can take the form of physical danger, classroom distractions, or non-productivity. 

Pivotal behavior is that which doesn’t directly cause problems, but which contributes to another problematic behavior. For example, a student who encourages another disruptive student is demonstrating pivotal behavior. 

Positive behaviors are those which benefit the student and others in the classroom. For example, a student who helps a classmate carry their books is demonstrating positive behavior. 

Behaviors should be recorded in objective, observable terms. Instead of recording, “Sarah was aggressive in class today”, you should record, “When the lights turned on during Math class, Sarah slapped Nicholas in the back of the neck.” 


The consequence is what directly occurs because of the student’s behavior. A positive behavior triggers a positive consequence, while a problematic or pivotal behavior triggers a negative consequence. The consequence is important because it serves as the motivation to switch a problematic or pivotal behavior to a positive one. 

You need to be careful with consequences as they are often misunderstood. For example, a teacher may convince a student to stop complaining by giving him a piece of candy. While this may work in the short term, it rewards the child’s bad behavior and will most likely result in repeated bad behavior. 

Teachers should only grant positive consequences to students who demonstrate positive behavior. It’s also essential that positive consequences are valuable to the student. Positive consequences can be good grades, more playground time, arts and crafts projects, or no homework. 

When looking at consequences, it’s helpful to look at their timeframe. Determine if a behavior is carried out to produce a consequence that’s in the short-term or long-term. Students often perform a certain behavior because of the immediate positive consequence that follows. If a consequence is more long-term oriented, it’s less likely that the student is performing the behavior on purpose.

What Is an Antecedent Strategy?

Instead of altering the consequence, teachers can make changes to the antecedent to improve a child’s behavior. Antecedent strategies are used to change the environment to remove triggers for poor behavior. 

Teachers can change a classroom’s physical environment by dimming the lighting, reducing the noise level, and removing distractions. Teachers can change a class’s structure by reserving areas of the classroom for certain activities, creating daily routines, or setting clear student expectations. 

Teachers can alter classroom tasks and assignments to make them more enjoyable for students. They can add visual reference points to improve communication with students. They can also let students give their input on how they prefer the classroom environment to be. By changing factors like these, teachers can create different antecedents and different resulting behaviors. 

What Is a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)?

A functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is the process a school undergoes to determine what’s causing a challenging behavior. It’s based on the idea that all behavior is carried out for a reason, and it can be used as part of the ABC model. The purpose of an FBA is to identify the purpose of a student’s behavior so that steps can be taken to change it. 

First, a student’s FBA team is formed. An FBA team is led by someone who is trained in understanding behavior, like a behavioral specialist or psychologist. FBA teams are also made up of family members, the student, service providers, staff, and teachers. 

The FBA begins by identifying the challenging behavior. Next, team members need to gather information about the student’s behavior. The following are common questions to ask in this step.

  • “What happens before and after the student’s behavior?”
  • “When and where does the behavior occur?”
  • “How often does this behavior happen?”
  • “When does the behavior not occur?”

Once the information is gathered, the FBA team needs to determine what’s causing the behavior or the function. Student misbehavior can be caused by several factors including stress, isolation, lack of energy, and more. 

After the probable function has been identified, the FBA team develops a behavior intervention plan (BIP). A BIP is a written plan that prevents problematic behavior and reinforces desirable behaviors.

Best Practices for Changing Student Behavior

It’s important to follow best practices when using the ABC model to change a student’s behavior. 

First, you should let students know ahead of time what the consequences are for performing certain behaviors. By telling a student what penalty will result from a negative behavior and what reinforcement will result from a positive one, you’ll have a better chance of seeing improved behavior from the beginning. 

For example, a teacher assigning homework can tell her students that if they don’t complete the work, they will receive a poor grade. If the students do complete their homework, they’ll receive a good grade. Students who are made aware of the consequences beforehand are more likely to finish the assignment. 

Next, it’s important to be consistent with your consequences. Consequences that are consistently enforced are more likely to generate desirable student behaviors in the long-term. 

When teachers need to address individual student behaviors, it’s important to do so discreetly. Doing this prevents the student from feeling uncomfortable, and it doesn’t draw attention from their peers. 

To do this, approach the student and speak to him or her up close. Next, get down to his or her level by sitting down or squatting. Finally, use a low and neutral tone when addressing his or her misbehavior. 

Teachers should always make firm statements about consequences instead of making soft suggestions. When a class is getting too loud, the teacher should not say, “Can you quiet down please?” This leaves the door open for back-and-forth negotiation, and it implies that the teacher is content with the students deciding not to lower their voices. 

Instead, the teacher should say, “It’s gotten too loud. It’s time to quiet down.” This enforces a strict consequence of what happens when a classroom gets too loud. 

Teachers can also make general statements to avoid drawing attention to specific students. For example, when one student fails to wipe his feet on the mat after playing outside, the teacher can say, “I really appreciate it when you all clean your shoes off before walking in the classroom.” By doing this, the teacher addresses the undesirable behavior without singling out specific students for taking the wrong action. 

Another strategy teachers can use is to create seating arrangements that reduce the probability of undesirable behaviors. If two students constantly misbehave when sitting near each other, the teacher can assign them to sit on opposite sides of the classroom. 

Finally, teachers should always remember to reward students for positive behavior. When students successfully put all their materials away when it’s time to clean up, the teacher can say “Thank you!”, offer an extended playground time, or present other rewards. 


The ABC Model is a great tool for those with students who constantly misbehave. The strategy identifies what causes the misbehavior, how the behavior is carried out, and the resulting consequences of the misbehavior. Once you understand these three aspects, you can begin to take corrective action. 

The model is commonly used as part of ABA therapy, but it is a technique that can be implemented in a typical classroom setting. To focus on changing a specific student’s behavior, an FBA can be created to determine what’s causing the behavior. Antecedent strategies can be implemented to change a behavior’s triggers to create a more desirable outcome. 

When implementing the ABC model, teachers should always keep in mind best practices like making firm statements, discreetly addressing individual students, and always reinforcing positive behaviors.

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About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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