Autism Resources

Managing Problem Behaviors in the Community (ABCs of Behavior)

Joshua Sleeper June 24, 2020

Most parents know that raising a child comes with its fair share of unique situations and challenges, especially when those challenges present themselves as problem behaviors in public places. The reality is that behavior can be hard to control without the proper guidance, and parents of a child with special needs may face elevated problems of all types in both scope and frequency.


Three key questions are central to learning basics of problem behaviors:

  • Why is the behavior occurring?
  • How do I best respond to the situation?
  • What skill can I teach to replace the problem behavior?

Each of these questions will be discussed in greater detail below.

Step 1 – Understanding Why a Behavior Occurs

First and foremost, you need to establish WHY the behavior is occurring. Behavior comes from the child’s environment; areas where they are exposed to other people and situations. Behavior is first developed and then continues because it gets the child or person something he/she wants. In other words, the behavior “works” for the individual.

First Person Examples:

  • Brother has a toy I want > I bite brother on his arm > brother drops toy and runs away. I get toy! Mission accomplished!
  • Mom says to clean up toys > I scream and hit mom > Mom cleans up toys for me while singing the “cleanup song.” I love the cleanup song….

Bottom Line? If a challenging behavior is occurring, the environment is supporting it somehow. This is GOOD because it means we can change the

A child reads a book

Step 2 – Knowing Your ABCs

In practicing the principles of behavior analysis, look for the ABCs of behavior. That is:

A: Antecedents (what happens before the behavior)

B: Behavior (what actually happens)

C: Consequence (what happens after the behavior)

Antecedents include things like telling a child his/her playtime is over, which leads to screaming and tantrums. Another example would be asking a child to put on his/her shoes, at which point they say “NO” and stomp away! Whatever the situation, it’s the action that causes the behavior to occur.

Behavior is the action that occurs, such as the tantrum or behavior issue. Simple enough!

Consequence, the third and final part of the behavior, is the thing that reliably happens after the behavior. Knowing the consequence helps identify what the person gets for engaging in the behavior.

Samples of consequences from the examples above could be a child getting five more minutes of play time, or the child having mom/dad put their shoes on for them.

Step 3 – Understanding Reinforcement & Function

Reinforcement immediately follows a behavior and increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur in the future. Think of reinforcement as “strengthening” the behavior.

Two Key Points

1) Reinforcement occurs for desired behavior and challenging behavior

2) It does not matter if YOU think the consequence is desirable or undesirable; only what the individual presenting the behavior thinks.


Four main functions for a behavior are as follows:

  • Attention: from parents, peers, siblings, etc
  • Tangibles: food, toys, activities
  • Escape: work, social situations, things that are “hard”
  • Automatic/Sensory: something that relieves pain or discomfort

Why not just guess the function?

If we don’t know the function, we might respond in ways that make the challenging situation even worse! Example: the function of the child’s behavior is to get attention. As a parent, you sit down and discuss the situation with the child, thereby giving them the attention they seek. In this example, you’ve accidentally reinforced the function, making it more likely for the situation to reoccur in the future!

Step 4 – Identifying Ways to Prevent the Problem Behavior from Occurring

Below we will offer a variety of strategies for each of the functions of behavior.

Be sure to start out by using antecedent information to come up with strategies. General strategies include:

  • Identifying reinforcers ahead of time
  • Offering choices
  • Catching your child doing something good and providing reinforcement
Strategies for Attention/Tangible Maintained Behavior:
  • Give lots of attention for appropriate behavior
  • Point out good behavior to others
  • “First this, then that.”
  • Follow the current activity with a high attention activity
  • Identify ways for the child to be a helper
  • Give warning/countdown for transitions between activities
Strategies for Escape/Delay Maintained Behavior:
  • Give clear instructions, review the rules
  • “First this, then that”
  • Offer choices
  • Offer help or breaks
  • Provide more rewards for completing tasks
  • Give warnings and countdowns
  • Use a timer or visual schedules
  • Break work up into chunks
  • Provide a break or end the activity early BEFORE challenging behavior starts. Gradually increase the amount of work/tasks completed before giving a break.

Trumpet’s team of clinicians and therapists are highly trained in providing problem behavior management skills. Our team knows that by developing a foundation for why problem behaviors occur, we can help guide the outcome of a situation for children of all developmental abilities.