What are ABC charts?
Ever wonder why your child has suddenly become so angry? The ABC chart is a tool that helps to keep a record of these moments, uncover the triggers, figure out why children are becoming upset, and minimize the chances of it happening again. Parents, educators, psychologists, and behavior analysts use ABC charts to help them support children struggling with anger management, challenging behavior, tantrums, and meltdowns. However, recently, the neurodiversity movement has raised some concerns about these charts and whether they are overly focused on neurotypical expectations and interpretations of behavior.
How do ABC charts work?
Often, behavior can be a means of communicating a need; the ABC chart helps to identify the need and address the underlying cause of the behavior. It can also help show if the behavior is helping meet the child’s needs.
Traditional ABC charts consist of three boxes:
A = the antecedent, what happened immediately before the behavior occurred.
B = the behavior, what happened.
C = the consequence, or what happened immediately after the behavior.
By filling in the chart each time a behavior occurs, you collect the information you need to spot patterns in the events. For example, it might help you notice that each time there is a loud noise, your child becomes upset, or perhaps that each time a plan changes unexpectedly, they become overwhelmed.
You may also be able to notice if their behavior is being reinforced or encouraged. For example, perhaps each time they get upset, the result is that they avoid having to go somewhere they don’t want to go. Here, the child is subconsciously learning that their behavior has positive results and may feel encouraged to repeat that behavior again in the hope of attaining the same outcome.
Once you have figured out what is causing your child’s distress, you will be able to make a plan for avoiding or minimizing the triggers and ensuring that the behavior is not being reinforced or encouraged, which in turn may reduce the frequency or intensity of the behavior.
Concerns about ABC charts:
Understanding children's behavior is crucial to being able to support them. ABC charts are often helpful in helping to gain insight. However, there are some concerns:
The language used: the word behavior has many negative connotations, but not all behavior is negative. Everything that we do is a behavior. Behaviors are a way of expressing our needs. For this reason, we will be referring to the behavior non-judgmentally as the ‘expression of need’.
They only consider the events immediately preceding the expression of need. This is problematic as it is often a build-up of events and stress that lead to the expression of need, and these events may have taken place hours or even days before.
They only consider the observer's perspective; the child is not consulted. If the child is neurodivergent and the observer is not, this results in a neurodivergent viewpoint being absent from the analysis.
It can sometimes focus on changing the expression of need rather than supporting the underlying cause. If the expression of need is suppressed but the underlying cause remains, the need will next be expressed in a different form.
They often do not consider sensory sensitivities, which in neurodivergent children are regularly the cause of expressions of need.
They are not a collaborative approach to solving the underlying cause. ABC charts focus on the adult making the decision on how best to solve the cause; the child’s opinion is not considered. The child is just as interested as the adult is in solving the problem; involving them in the decision-making process will help a solution be found more easily.
In response to the concerns discussed above we created the Solve the Why Chart!
Solve the Why Chart:
Focuses on solving why the expression of need (behavior) occurs rather than suppressing the expression of need (behavior).
A collaborative approach between adults and children to solving the why
Considers sensory sensitivities.
Considers neurodivergent perspectives.
Considers the child's viewpoint.
Once you and your child have identified the why together, it is time to consider how to support them with this.
Often, from a neurotypical perspective, some expressions of need may seem unacceptable. It is important to consider if the expression of need is truly problematic or simply at odds with neurotypical expectations. For example, if the expression of need is impacting the safety or well-being of your child or others, it is important to support them in finding a safer way to express this need or to reduce or prevent the why from occurring. It is also important to consider if the expression of need is a form of stimming (see below). If this is the case, it may be something that your child needs to do to regulate (see below).
What is stimming?
Stimming, short for self-stimulatory behavior, refers to repetitive body movements or actions often exhibited by autistic people or those with sensory processing disorders. These behaviors, which can include actions like hand-flapping, rocking, or repetitive vocalizations, serve as a way for individuals to self-regulate and manage sensory input. Stimming helps individuals cope with overwhelming stimuli and promotes a sense of comfort and control in their environment. While stimming is a natural and often beneficial coping mechanism, it varies widely among individuals and is an essential aspect of understanding and supporting neurodiversity.
What is regulation?
Regulation in autistic children refers to the ability to manage and control their sensory, emotional, and behavioral responses to the environment. Autistic children may experience challenges in self-regulation, leading to difficulties in adapting to sensory stimuli, managing emotions, and social interactions.
O'Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior: A practical handbook. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied behavior analysis. Pearson.