Behavior Management #6

What about ABCs as applied to teaching?

Before I discuss functional analyses, which are the empirical testing of hypotheses based on functional behavior assessments, I want to digress. In this digression, I provide enrichment on the idea of ABCs in hopes of helping readers to see how fine-grained an FBA needs to be.

I also want to do this because one of the the most important aspects of behavior management is to teach effectively. Readers of the SET newsletter will recognize this as similar to my regular sign-off at the end of the newsletters; it’s also the name of one of my previous blogs.

If one teaches effectively, students will be learning, they will be engaged in the instruction, and they will feel good about themselves as learners. Given that those outcomes are accomplished, if instruction moves along humanely (teachers must want good outcomes for their students—if they don’t, they’re in the wrong job—and, so, should treat students as worthy human beings [see subsequent posts about accentuating the positive!]) and is brisk and efficient (little “down time”), then there will be few opportunities for students to “act up.” Said another way, teaching effectively reduces the need for behavior management interventions.

This topic

In an earlier installment in this series (Behavior management: #4...edging toward practice ), I wrote the following:

Imagine a slow-motion, moment-by-moment recording of a teaching situation (remember: We teach behavior) in which an Rj occurs. You can review the seconds before the Rj occurs and those that immediately follow it. Conceptually, it would look something like this

==> A-A-A-Rj-C-C-C

where “A” stands for antecedent events and the situation, “Rj” stands for the the instance of the behavior, and “C” stands for consequent events.

Whoa! If I just substitute “B,” meaning behavior, for Rj, I’ve got the alphabet. It’s the ABCs!)

In this post, I plan to deconstruct (not as in “critique” but as in “examine in detail”) the idea of ABCs in instructional activities. Now, let’s start right here with the term “instructional activities.” What does that mean? Well, it refers (in part) to the “teaching cycle” shown in the preceding quotation from the earlier post.

Instructional activities

By instructional activities I refer to what transpires between a teacher and a student, especially at the moment-to-minute level. This use of teaching is not the same as in, “I am an elementary teacher,” “Oh, I teach English,” or “Of course, I base my teaching on student’s learning styles” (BTW: Get away from me with that spoon; “learning styles” itself is enough to make me gag.)

Even something so venerated as the Socratic method (or inquiry) illustrates a teaching activity. Even though some advocates of the Socratic method might say that it does not involve a knowing individual pouring facts into the learner’s empty chalice, it does employ the back and forth of the ABC analysis I described in that earlier post.

For A, we substitute the “teacher” (Socrates) asking a question. For B, we substitute some response by the student; the response might be a statement or a question back to the teacher. For C, the teacher might respond with another question or other statement. That’s essentially the moment-to-minute cycle, the ABCs.

What about explicit instruction?

Sure, the Socratic method sounds like abstract, pie-in-the-sky philosophy talk. But, it’s not that far off from what I routinely call “explicit instruction.” In explicit instruction, the sequence or cycle might go like this:

  1. Teacher, pointing to the letter s, asks the question, “What sound for this letter?”

  2. Student responds, “ssss.”

  3. Teacher responds, “Yes! Now you know (pointing to s) this letter’s sound is /s/.”

It might go like this:

  1. Teacher asks the student, “What are the major steps in electrophoresis?”

  2. Student responds, “(1) set up the apparatus; (2) make the gel; (3) add the sample to the gel; (4) run current through the gel; (5) stain the gel, and (6) analyze and report the results.”

  3. Teacher responds, “Yes! You can recite the steps in electrophoresis.”

Or it might go like this (IMPORTANT: This is not a confrontational interaction and does not occur when the behavior is an immediate problem):

  1. Teacher tells the student, “Show me what it looks like when you are sitting still.”

  2. Student answers (responds) by sitting still.

  3. Teacher responds by saying, “Yes, that’s are sitting still!”

Of course, in each of these snippets, there is just one antecedent, one instance of behavior (Rj), and one consequence. Each illustrates just one moment-to-minute interaction, one teaching cycle. Actual instruction will require lots of them of similar shape or form (i.e., lots of practice on /s/), but with skillfully arranged variations on the As (antecedents...are your remembering?) and Cs.

To understand how this cycle works (and those who wish to learn much more should consult Engelmann & Carnine, 2015, and Greer, 2021, among others), we need to continue deconstructing (“drilling down,” as it is popular to say or write).

A gross model

Here’s an image that illustrates the ABC model I’m describing. As should be clear, it’s focused on only one instance of teaching behavior, not an integrated sequence. Also, it provides only one example (which I’ll explain later is insufficient); readers can substitute different tasks into the model.

Starting at the top, it has the big parts: A = Teacher’s question; B = Student’s answers; and C = Teacher’s feedback.

Once you read below the boxes showing teacher presentation, student answer, and teacher feedsback, though, things get a little more complicated.

I promised you, dear readers, that we would deconstruct that simple ABC! Let’s drill down on the greater detail. (And a warning: This is only an early-stage deconstruction; there are substantial details of the features of explicit instruction lurking beneath or behind many of the following notes.)


To examine the antecedents, one has to reflect on at least two considerations. First, what’re the conditions for the learner. Second, what are the teacher’s actions.

Let’s think about the learner (and this is a part of what I think “learner-centered instruction” should do). In any learning situation, the learner is surrounded by lotsa events, situations, and conditions. One of the learner’s tasks is to filter what’s relevant for a given learning situation and which is floatsam and jetsam.

In Robbie’s world, should he attend to his memory of the red car that passed the school bus really rapidly, the flag snapping in the wind outside of the classroom window, the itch under his sock, or any other of the many current stimuli? Although “attending” is a cognitive task for Robbie, it is not one that generally requires him to sit back and reflect (“Hmm, I am going to think about the purple smudge on the edge of the paper, not the teacher’s directions”). All this happens really rapidly. He briefly focuses on the itchy spot and scratches it, gaining relief from the itch. That’s one learning cycle composed of ABC.

In fact, neuro-behavioral models (You want brain-based learning? Here you go!) show that one of the functions of the hippocampus, where nearly all sensory data go early in neural processing, is to perform some of that filtering. As my colleague Chip Levy reported long ago (Levy, 1989, Levy 1996, and Levy & Stewart, 1979), psychologists can model these functions with remarkable validity. Parts of the hippocampus are involved in verbal memory, spatial memory, and concept formation (see Guy-Evans, 2021). It’s the first and last parts—verbal memory and concept formation, especially—about which we are concerned, right?

So it follows that an effective teaching cycle (and a series of cycles) should help the learner’s hippocampus filter out the irrelevant aspects of the situation and attend to the relevant parts. Focusing on the relevant parts was one of the three aspects of “attention” that developmental psychologist and special educator, Barbara Keogh (Keogh & Margolis, 1979) discussed in a paper about learning disabilities.

Now, I want to expand on what I showed graphically in Behavior management: #4. Think back to the image of a student and a teacher sitting at (an antique) Mac. For any one specific teaching event, the student has a shipload of features streaming into the hippocampus. In the A part of the sequence, one job for teachers is to emphasize the relavent features of the situation. Teachers may point, vocally stress, or otherwise augment the part of the task relevant to their instructional question (perhaps by aspects—color, size, font, etc.—of the visual presentation); but be careful here, because some emphases may mislead learners.

The goal is pretty simple: Show the learner what Rj to perform when they encounter a specific Aj. Later, the teacher will prompt this A-B part of the ABC link in using the Rj to form other more complex behaviors. Here are examples:

  1. Teacher, pointing to the word “sat,” gives the direction (content segment), “Say the sounds for each letter and get ready to read the word.”

  2. Teacher, giving directions for the day’s chemistry activities, says, “Ok, remember the steps in electrophoresis. Please complete the first two steps.”

There’s more in the model from the previous figure (e.g., “attention signal”), but I’ll save those for later. For now, on to the Rj.


What if the learner doesn’t know or can’t perform the Rj? “Oh, well. Wait until they’re developmentally ready....” Not the right answer! A teachers’ job is to teach. That means we should help learners who don’t know stuff to become developmentally ready!

Whether the students “pass” or “fail” the test, then it’s time to help them learn it. It’s time to provide feedback.


If you’re following along, it should be pretty easy to ascertain whether learners are answering questions correctly. The teacher asked a simple, clear question. Did the students give an accurate answer?

If yes, yay and hooray! The teacher is on a glide path. Instruction is working! Keep going! Let the learners know that they made a correct response and start the next cycle.

Celebrate successes!

There’s nothing the matter with doing things that increase the chances that learners will give the correct response in future opportunities. It’s OK to reinforce correct responses. And reinforcement doesn’t mean giving candy. A teacher’s expressions of happiness can be very reinforcing: “Oh, man! You got that hard one, 7 * 6! Way to go! It is 42!”

Sometimes, to be sure, the teacher may ask a question for which multiple answers are acceptable. For questions such as “what’s your favorite color” or “what are reasons this historical event occurred,” students can reasonably answer in different ways. But, the consequence still applies. Feedback should acknowledge all reasonable Rjs (“Yeah, that’s right; people say that’s one of the reasons for the US Civil War”).

Sometimes, though, a student’s Rj is just flat wrong. “What’s the capital of Nevada?” “Reno.” The teacher points to a d, says “what sound,” and a student says /b/. Opps! Instead of taking this as an indication of crossed neural wiring, teachers should consider mistakes opportunities to teach!

This problem leads us back to the A-side from the C-side of the ABC model. The response is “on the learner,” but teachers can influence it. What can we do if the learner is naive? We can tell them the answer or show them how to perform the sequence of activities. We can model the Rj. It’s what Archer and Hughes (2010) call “I do” in the three-step approach (“I do; we do; you do”) they explain in their excellent book on teaching.

Why does it go to either the A- or the C-side? Well, because it affects the teacher’s behavior. With every cycle, teachers are testing whether students know the A-B relationship. Based on the students’ response, teachers should modify their behavior. (You do remember that behaivor and environment are locked in a dance, right? So, teachers’ behavior is locked in a dance with their environments, students’ responses are a part of teachers’ environments, so adaptations to instruction are just part of that dance.)

One way to provide an antecedent or consequent example or model might be that the teacher her- or himself actually physically demonstrates the behavior (“Watch me. This is what sitting calmly doesn’t look like. And this is what it looks like. Your turn, Jimmy. What does sitting calmly look like?”) Another alternative is that the teacher can use a a fellow student as a shill: “Watch Juanita! She knows the sound for this letter. What sound, Juanita? Dang, she is really good at this. Walt, what’s the sound for his letter?” Remember, all the “watch me” or “watch Juanita” parts may actually be on the C side of the ABC cycle, but they generally turn out to be the beginning of a new A side, too (that is, a correction turns into a new opportunity for the learners to respond).

If it’s reasonably likely that the students do not know the A-B relationship, then we should be considerate of their status and help them early—like the very beginning—in a sequence of cycles by providing a model (more learner-friendly teaching). As a part of the A part, we should help them by providing a prompt (e.g., “’s a secret: The capital of Nevada is Carson City. So, raise your hand if you had an usual breakfast today...oh, wow, snot and bananas! OK, everybody, what’s the capital of Nevada?”).

And so, we are back to the A side of the model. The teacher should start a new cycle, providing help for the learner who made the mistake. That help should look a lot like what one would do for the naive learner as described earlier: “Actually, this letter is /sss/. What sound?” or “Oops, you should have said, ‘Reno.’ Let’s practice: What’s the capital of Nevada?”

So, as the earlier image shows, for the C-side of the model, the teacher delivers feedback to the learners about their responses. After an Rj, teachers can alter the environment by providing a positive consequence (“Yay!”) or a helping consequence (“Here’s how to get it right”) or they can provide a correction (essentially, an explanation of how to get it right the next time), which is essentially back on the A side starting a new cycle. Please note the absence of a punishing consequence; we’ll return to that type of consequences in a subsequent post.

Now, there’s a lot more to discuss about feedsback (yes, I know that s looks weird in there!), but that discussion is for another day.


As noted previously, the model I’ve described is quite simple. One of the most important misperceptions of what I’ve shown is that teachers only have to employ an individual ABC teaching cycle to teach something. That’s just not true; learning something takes lots and lots of practice opportunities, or repetitions.

We can understand this idea by simply examining our own behavior. Imagine dining with friends and picking up a fork (or chopsticks) to take that first bite of a delicious-smelling dish. The A-side has many features (at a restaurant, having ordered, small talk, great smells, presence of utensils and food, everyone is served, etc.) and the Rj is picking up the utensils. You’ve performed the B (or Rj) many, many times in the past (perhaps quite often with chopsticks for some readers, but not often for some other readers!), so your Rj is nuanced. You reach for the fork at a certain pace; you pinch the fork among the thumb and one or two fingers; you do not grab the fork by the tines; you orient the fork in a certain way in your fingers, etc.). These are all features of the Rj that you have learned from not just one but from 10s or 100s of 1000s repetitions. Just reflect for a moment on how many times you have picked up forks or chopsticks in your life...don’t forget to multiply by the number of meals X the number days X number of years in your life. Learning an Rj takes lots of cycles!

Please do not misunderstand what I’m describing. The model does not necessarily lead to a lot of drill and practice. It is more nuanced. Each practice cycle occurs under certain conditions, and there are many cycles. Teachers affect those conditions by controlling the environment surrounding each Rj (i.e., they change the As and the Cs).


Teaching, whether it is about behavior, letter-sound relationships, simple content knowledge, or chemistry procedures, requires that teachers manipulate the antecedents and consequences of learners’ behavior. Based on a combination of logic and scientific evidence, by focusing on the ABCs, teachers can provide compelling, effective, learner-friendly, and (even brain-based) teaching.

Sources & resources

Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2010). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. Guilford Publications.

Belfiore, P. J., Skinner, C. Y, & Ferkis, M. A. (1995). Effects of response and trial repetition on sight-word training for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28(3), 347-348.

Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (2015). Theory of instruction (rev. ed.). NIFDI.

Guy-Evans, O. (2021). Hippocampus function and location. Simply Psychology.

Greer, R. D. (2002). Designing teaching strategies: An applied behavior analysis systems approach. Academic Press.

Keogh, B. K., & Margolis, J. (1976). Learn to labor and to wait: Attentional problems of children with learning disorders. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 9(5), 276-286.

Levy, W. B. (1989). A computational approach to hippocampal function. In R. D. Hawkins & G. H. Bower (Eds.), Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 23, pp. 243-305). Academic Press.

Levy, W. B. (1996). A sequence predicting CA3 is a flexible associator that learns and uses context to solve hippocampal‐like tasks. Hippocampus, 6(6), 579-590.

Levy, W. B., & Steward, O. (1979). Synapses as associative memory elements in the hippocampal formation. Brain Research, 175(2), 233-245.

Reis, R. (n.d.). The Socratic Method: What it is and how to use it in the classroom. Tomorrow’s Professor Postings #810.