Behavior Management #5: ABCs about misbehavior in more detail

How should we assess behavior's causes?

In the immediately preceding post, I discussed the importance of examining the minute-to-moment environment—the ABCs—that surrounds a specific instance of a behavior (an Rj). I suggested that examining the ABCs for multiple instances of a behavior (or R), allows one to infer possible causal relationships.

In this post, I’ll discuss how examining those minute-to-moment aspects of the environments allows educators to form hypotheses about the causes of behavior. In the next post, I’ll explain how we can verify which hypothesis actually explains behavior.

Considering causes of behavior

How should we examine the causes of behavior? Traditional views emphasize interviews and speculation. “Why do you think you cussed out your teacher?” “She did it because she has had a traumatic home life.” “Kids from impoverished neighborhoods just get frustrated because they can’t keep up.” Etc.

Virtually none of these explanations are testable in the case of individual students. They are fascinating at a macro level, but they are speculative, especially when they regard a specific case or instance.

Explanations for the causes of behavior often refer to temporally and environmentally remote variables. As I indicated previously, they may be predicated on conditions or experiences that occurred years earlier in an individual’s life, may have occurred under remarkably different circumstances, and etc. And rarely are those conditions, experiences, or circumstances open to modification in clear or obvious ways.

An alternative perspective

Fortunately, an alternative perspective exists. The alternative is a simple extension of the view that behavior is influenced by the environments in which it occurs. Under certain conditions, behavior works to alter the environment.

Thus, the alternative involves proposing possible explanations about what function the behavior serves in given environments. The technology generally has two parts “functional behavior assessment” (FBA) and “functional analysis” (FA). In this post, we focus on the first of those.

Although I’m separating the methods into two posts, it’s important to recognize that the core idea of using FBAs and FAs together is to determine the cause of a behavior. It is not to identify some remote psychological cause of types of behavior (Attention Deficit Disorder, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder) nor to identify the “cause” of a specific instance (Rj), but to identify the cause of the R.

To identify causes of a behavior (e.g., running away on the playground, refusing to read aloud, misbehaving during circle, sleeping during history class), educators and parents need to examine the circumstances (the ABCs!) of the behavior.

Remember that (a) behavior has functions and (b) behavior comes under stimulus control. If you need a refresher, look back at Behavior Management #2: Core concepts in behavior management and Behavior management: #3.

What are functions?

When Ted Carr (1977) argued that not only might behavior have functions, but that one could change environments on the basis of those functions and, thereby, change behavior (Carr & Durand, 1985), people’s understanding of the functions of behavior advanced. (Sadly, Carr and his partner died as a consequence of another person’s misbehavior; a drunk driver crossed the centerline on a highway, hitting the Carr’s car head-on. Please don’t drive when you’re high; get a ride or hire a driver.)

A key concept about identifying functions is this: Children’s and youth’s outcomes would be well served if misbehaviors could be replaced with socially appropriate behaviors. So, how do we do that? Well, we conduct FBAs and FAs and develop behavior intervention plans.


We start by assessing behavior. We don’t have to start with hypotheses about horrible homelives (“She had a traumatic childhood”) or malign intentions on the child’s behalf (“He’s just doing it to get my goat”). We simply need to assess behavior.

When does the behavior occur? That is—watch out! ABCs are lurking right here—under what conditions does it occur, including what happens after it?

  • What are the conditions (potential Sds) when behavior occurs

  • What happens after a behavior occurs (what function does the behavior have)?


Educators should use multiple methods to gather information about the conditions surrounding a behavior. The information should come from interviews, observations, and records.

Regardless of the method used to gather information, the process of conducting an FBA must have at its center a clear definition of the R. To be “clear,” the definition must be objective, unambiguous, and complete. Can two assessors (observers) reliably say that the behavior did occur or is occurring?

Here are three examples of Rs that have been defined in observable ways:

  1. Elopement may be commonly known as “running away.” Piazza et al. (1997) studied Owen, Ray, and Ty’s actions to leave work sessions. “Elopement was defined as any part of the participant’s body passing through the doorway (Owen and Ray) and moving or attempting to move 3 m (or more) away from the therapist...during the functional analyses and treatment assessments” (p. 655). Kodak et al. (2004) studied running away from a designated area during kickball games with a child named Marie. “Elopement was defined as running more than 1 m away from the kicking area or designated base when it was not functional to the game. An instance of elopement began when Marie was 1 m or more away from the designated area and ended when she returned to the base or kicking area” (p. 229).

  2. Pica refers to eating or mouthing inedible items or substances (see News: Advising parents about pica Piazza et al. (1996) examined a young man’s eating of cigarette butts. They reported that “[c]igarette butt pica was defined as placing any part of a cigarette butt or pieces of the cigarette (e.g., tobacco leaf) on or past the lips” (p. 440). In another study, Piazza et al (1998) studied pica for three young children. “Pica was defined as placing one of the baited items [objects such as tape, paper, chair cushions]...or any other inedible object not meant to be ingested (e.g., hair, oxygen tube, clothing, carpet) past the plane of the lips” (p. 168).

  3. Aggression refers to multiple different actions. In a study with a 13-year-old girl by Roscoe et al. (2010), “aggression [was] defined as any instance of actual or attempted hitting above the shoulders, biting, or hair pulling” (p. 723-724). Northup et al. (1991) studied aggression by three children; they defined aggressive behavior individually for each child: “For Curtis, aggressive behavior was defined as any attempt to scratch, pinch, hit or grab the experimenters. For Heidi and Genia, aggressive behavior was defined as any attempt to pinch, hit, or bite the experimenters” (p. 512). In a study of agressive behavior by a elderly man with dementia, Baker et al. (2006) defined “[a]ggression, in the form of forceful contact with a closed or open fist with a staff member” (p. 470).

Interviews and scales

One way to collect evidence about the causes of behavior is to ask people in the behaver’s environment (e.g., parents, teachers, assistants) to discuss the behavior. “When does he hit, scratch, or bite you?” Of course, answers may include the interviewee’s interpretation of the behavior (e.g., “When he’s cranky and tired”), in which case the interviewer will need to probe for more concrete answers (“So what time of day is that?” and “What activities are occurring when he’s aggressive?”).

To obtain more structured evidence, educators might employ a scale or tool to help identify the functions of a behavior. Here are three examples of widely used scales: (a) Motivational Assessment Scale (Durand & Crimmins, 1988), (b) The Functional Assessment Analysis Screening Tool (Iwata et al., 2013; the scale is in an online appendix), and (c) Problem Behavior Questionnaire (Lewis et al., 1994).

ABC observations

As discussed previously, educators are well advised to conduct systematic observations of the antecedents, behavior, and consequences when determining the function of behavior. Suppose that educators are concerned about a student named Charlie having tantrums (whining, crying, hitting himself, and kicking at others). The accompanying chart shows a super-simplified example of how educators might record the antecedents and consequences of three instances of tantruming.

Let’s see a more sophisticated example of collecting ABC data. The video here (~5 min) comes from the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University and it features Professor Kathleen Lynne Lane of Kanssas University. As Professor Lane (see Friday Photos 2; she’s one of the foremost authorities on using FBAs) explains, the observation examines “non-compliance.” (Note: You may need to scrub back to the beginning of the video; it appears this link starts a few seconds into it.)

In the example of ABC recording for Cameron’s non-compliance, three instances of the behavior occur in quick succession. Sometimes, however, one has the record over multiple days (and, we would in the case of Cameron, too). These examples in the video are associated with a writing lesson. Does non-compliance occur under other circumstances? What about in small-group instruction? Does he not comply with “standing rules” (e.g., the behaviors are expected to perform when they enter the classroom)? But this video should be very helpful in getting the basics of ABC recording; one would just need to complete additional ABC recordings in other situations.

By reviewing the data collected with an ABC analysis, educators and parents can begin to identify likely factors that trigger misbehavior as well a consequences that maintain it. Those data can help one form hypotheses about causes of behavior.

Common hypotheses

Because researchers have examined lots of behavior problems, they have identified likely classes of causes of misbehavior. The classes amount to the “motivations” (remember that I’m standing away from motivation, so I’m hedge-quoting the word here) for misbehavior. The most common hypotheses are

  1. The behavior provides a way to escape from an aversive situation. Escape is essentially mediated by negative reinforcement—my behavior turns off an aversive condition—and the student may not cognitively “know” that this function is happening.

  2. The behavior may provide positive reinforcement, including attention from educators or peers. The adults may say, “oh, poor baby” and move to comfort the child; the child’s behavior may elicit peer attention (the “class clown”). This includes the potential for the behavior having an intrinsic or sensory value; that is, it’s immediate outcomes may be “exciting.” (I remember a boy who would get very “yippity-skippity” when he saw empty styrofoam cups being buffeted in a windy spot; he’d learned to look for those windy spots and, if there were no cups there, to find one and throw it into the windy spot.)

Developing hypotheses

Ultimately, the hypotheses educators develop using FBAs probably should be tested using scientific procedures. Sometimes, hypotheses generated from rating scales do not align with direct observations using an ABC format or an FA (Alter et al., 2008). Other times, educators’ hypotheses will be confirmed by FA, especially when rating-scale evidence and observations align, as Lewis et al. (2015) reported.

Thus, hypotheses should be based on, at least, ABC observations and, ideally, on FAs. Avoid taking the easy path of simply conducting interviews and completing rating scales. (Remember, there’s more coming about FAs in the next post.)

Additional resources

There are many valuable resources about FBAs. Standard text books on analyzing and changing behavior will have sections-chapters devoted to the topic (e.g., Alberto & Troutman, 2017; Cooper et al., 2020). There are also fabulous books devoted entirely to FBAs and FAs (e.g., Umbreit et al., 2007). See, also, the free, Internet-accessible summary of research about functional behavioral assessment-based interventions from the What Works Clearinghouse (2016), the practical guidance from Quinn et al. (1998), and an interview (103 minutes in length) with Brian Iwata hosted by Wayne Fuqua and provided by the Western Michigan University.


Educators really ought to want to use FBAs (and FAs, the topic of a subsequent next post). They help teachers, administrators, and psychologists not only understand behavior but create more effective and beneficial interventions for behavior.


Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (2017). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (9th ed.). Pearson.

Alter, P. J., Conroy M. A., Mancil, G. R., & Haydon, T. (2008). A comparison of functional behavioral assessments with young children: Descriptive methods and functional analysis. Journal of Behavioral Education, 17(2), 200–219.

Carr, E. G. (1977). The motivation of self-injurious behavior: A review of some hypotheses. Psychological Bulletin, 84(4), 800–816.

Baker, J. C., Hanley, G. P., & Mathews, R. M. (2006). Staff‐administered functional analysis and treatment of aggression by an elder with dementia. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39(4), 469-474.

Carr, E. G., & Durand, M. V. (1985). Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 18(2), 111–126.; link to open access version:

Durand, V., & Crimmins, D. (1988). Identifying the variable maintaining self-injurious behaviors. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 18(1), 99-117.

Iwata B. L., DeLeon I. G., & Roscoe, E. M. (2013). Reliability and validity of Functional Analysis Screening Tool. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 46(1), 271-284. (For the scale itself, see

Kodak, T., Grow, L., & Northup, J. (2004). Functional analysis and treatment of elopement for a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 37(2), 229-232.

Lewis, T. J., Mitchell, B. S., Harvey, K., Green, A., & McKenzie, J. (2015). A comparison of functional behavioral assessment and functional analysis methodology among students with mild disabilities. Behavioral Disorders, 41(1), 5-20.

Lewis, T. J., Scott, T. M., & Sugai, G. M. (1994). The Problem Behavior Questionnaire: A teacher-based instrument to develop functional hypotheses of problem behavior in general education classrooms. Diagnostique, 19, 103-115.

Northup, J., Wacker, D., Sasso, G., Steege, M., Cigrand, K., Cook, J., & DeRaad, A. (1991). A brief functional analysis of aggressive and alternative behavior in an outclinic setting. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24(3), 509-522.

Piazza, C. C., Fisher, W. W., Hanley, G. P., Leblanc, L. A., Worsdell, A. S., Lindauer, S. E., & Keeney, K. M. (1998), Treatment of pica through multiple analyses of its reinforcing functions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31(2), 165-189.

Piazza, C. C., Hanley, G. P., & Fisher, W. W. (1996). Functional analysis and treatment of cigarette pica. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29(4), 437-450.

Piazza, C. C., Hanley, G. P., Bowman, L. G., Ruyter, J. M., Lindauer, S. E., & Saiontz, D. M. (1997). Functional analysis and treatment of elopement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30(4), 653-672.

Quinn, M. M., Gable, R. A., Rutherford, R. B., Nelson, C. M., & Howell, K. W. (1998). Addressing student problem behavior: An IEP team’s introduction to functional behavioral asesment and behavior intervention plans. ERIC.

Roscoe, E. M, Kindle, A. E., & Pence, S. T. (2010). Functional analysis and treatment of aggression maintained by preferred conversational topics. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 723-727.

Umbreit, J., Ferro, J., Liaupsin, C. J., & Lane, K. L. (2007). Functional behavioral assessment and function-based intervention: An effective, practical approach. Pearson

What Works Clearinghouse. (2016). Functional behavioral assessment-based interventions: WWC Intervention Report: A summary of findings from a systematic review of the evidence. Institute of Education Sciences.