Leading and Caring for Children

Identify the A-B-C Pattern

The A-B-C pattern is a horizontal slice of time centered on a typical event.

With a few days of data, usually three or four, we can lay out in a brief way what is occurring using in three columns.  We first list the behavior we have decided upon in the middle column. That is the B. Then under C we write a general statement about what happens in the environment immediately afterward in general terms, the consequences. The left column, A, lists what we can say about the context this behavior occurs in, the situation and, if possible, a specific event that might have led to the behavior, the antecedent.

A-B-C1The most common mistake people make—very logically made, too—is to put the person who we are describing in either A or C. The person with the behavior goes in the middle column and only the middle column. This is why this little step is so important: we can look at the environment before and after for one event, instead of the person we are trying to help.

That person is never the subject in the entries made in the antecedent or consequence columns. (What the person does before the behavior would go above the current line in the chart, what happened after would go below.) This A-B-C pattern notation takes a slice of this person’s life, one event, and lets us establish the context and the reaction, for these are domains we can change.

I think this is best illustrated by real examples — Sandy, Jeremy and Charlie — told in the voices of the early childhood educators who studied them.


sandyI decided to work on something I have been struggling with since the beginning of the school year. Sandy, a five-year-old girl in my class, had been having screaming fits a lot. It seemed that these episodes were happening all the time. It really started to get to me. Usually the fits started when she wanted something like a toy from another child or a cookie for dessert when she hadn’t eaten her lunch. The episodes seemed to start with whining and escalated into Sandy screaming at the top of her lungs and throwing things around the classroom.

I started taking data on Tuesday, January 11. Sandy had 11 episodes on Tuesday, 23 on Wednesday, 13 on Thursday and 3 on Friday. Here was the A-B-C pattern.



jeremyAlthough I have several children in my class with difficult behaviors, I decided to focus first on a three-and-a-half-year-old named Jeremy. Jeremy climbs on and stands on tables, counters, and ledges looking all fancy and pleased with himself. Then he jumps off. He will do this at any time of the day, but it happens most at transition times. Also, Jeremy is the biggest child in my class and the rest of the children see him do this cool thing and try to copy it, too. Even if they don’t copy it, they are distracted by it. The children will sometimes laugh or tattle to the teachers thereby giving him a lot of attention. The teachers usually tell him to get down or physically haul him down.

I counted by marking a piece of masking tape I stuck to the back of one hand. Here are the counts for the five days of the before measure. Monday 7 times. Tuesday 6 times. Wednesday 3 times. Thursday 10 times. Friday 12 times.



charlieCharlie I call my “wild card”; I can never anticipate his behavior when he acts up. When he does, he usually gets others to follow him. It takes a long time to settle the class after Charlie starts throwing toys for no apparent reason. He is two years old, so I don’t expect him to sit with his hands folded all day. I would like for him to function in the classroom with some level of impulse control.

I didn’t realize just what a problem I had until I counted how many times Charlie dumped and threw buckets of toys. This was the first time I had ever counted anything. Monday it was 0. Tuesday it was 4. Wednesday it was 2. Thursday it was 2. Friday it was 3.

While I had initially thought the number of incidents to be higher than it was, these low numbers were not much of a relief, considering that this happened only in the 45 to 60 minutes of free play time. He seemed to dump anything to get attention. I also noticed that my responses were pretty negative, which probably fed into that desire for attention even though that attention was not very pleasant. I got angry and short with him. I couldn’t get him to clean it up, so the job fell to me or my co-teacher to do it. This made me even more frustrated, because I felt like Charlie’s personal servant.



Specify the behavior exactly
Take a before measure
Identify the A-B-C pattern

It matters little what an “expert” adviser or supervisor thinks ought to happen to fix these kinds of problems. What does matter is that the adults who care for these children discover these things for themselves by using this three step protocol.

  1. The adults have already gained new insights about the child and about themselves.
  2. The adults have refined their decision about the problem behavior and know when it occurs and when it is not occurring.
  3. The adults can express what is happening with clarity, so all managers, including the families, have the facts and all can visualize what is happening.

Application Challenges for Practice

  1. In leading people through this protocol, I have found practice helps people to fill out the A-B-C pattern, especially when situations are complex, so I created this exercise sheet called Identifying Antecedents and Consequences that you can use if you like. Identifying A-B-C PDF
  2. Next I offer a challenge called “Kurt”. This is a true story where I was called in to help the staff of a child care center deal with this child whose name has been changed. I offer this exercise Kurt PDF for you to download if you want to give it to a group to work on. I have people write what they would do if they had been in my shoes and then share their thoughts in groups of three or four. After a few minutes I compile all their ideas on the board or onto the projector. I simply write exactly what they say.

If you have the opportunity to lead others through this example of Kurt, I will let you draw your conclusions from the thoughts they contribute. I have found this to be a worthy experience in understanding the protocol and why it begins this way.

If you never will lead this with a group, I can briefly describe what happens. Most, if not all, of the suggestions are advice. Only once in many years has a person said to use the Examine the Behavior sequence. Instead they share their personal reality, their opinions, about what others should do.

We all know what happens when an advisor gives advice: the advisee does not follow any of it and does what they want to do anyway. Being asked for advice, however, is rather pleasant. It is pleasant for me to know that someone is turning to me for expertise; I like feeling like an expert, so offering my opinions and insight feels good, and so it’s easy to do. An associated problem is that people who seek help with a problem often end their request statement with the words, “What should I do?” as if they are seeking advice. This request for advice that naturally gets advice, but with little effect other than a brief period of vibrating air.

Now we can look at the menu of choices.

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  1. Specify the behavior exactly
  2. Take a before measure
  3. Identify the A-B-C pattern


  1. Change the consequences
  2. Pick a new behavior to reward
  3. Change the antecedents
  4. Continue to measure

Examples of Sandy, Jeremy, and Charlie

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