As mentioned in a previous article, behavior has three parts: the antecedent, the behavior itself, and the consequence. The antecedent is whatever happened right before the behavior (i.e. what “caused” the behavior). The consequence is whatever happens after the behavior. The antecedent, behavior, and consequence are known collectively as the ABCs of behavior.
For example, say you ask your daughter to put away her toys. This is the antecedent. In response, your daughter throws herself to the ground and starts crying. This is the behavior. As a consequence you might say, “It’s still time to clean up. We will play again later,” and proceed to help your daughter clean up her toys.
According to ABA theory, if you do not “give in” to your daughter’s tantrum, overtime your daughter would no longer tantrum when asked to put away her toys because tantrums do not “work” for her. On the other hand, if as a consequence you had said, “Ok you don’t have to clean up,” your daughter’s tantrum behavior would be strengthened.
As you can see, consequences can either reduce a behavior or strengthen it (or have no effect). Therefore traditionally, applied behavior analysts focused primarily on the use of consequences to increase positive behavior and decrease undesired behavior.
And there is no doubt about it: consequences play a major role in whether a behavior is strengthened or weakened. However, in the 1980’s and 90’s through the groundbreaking research of noted behavior analysts such as Jack Michael, Brian Iwata, and Michael Dorsey, our understanding of the power of antecedent stimuli on behavior was advanced. Today, as a result of much research into this area, ABA fully embraces the use of antecedent interventions. Antecedent interventions are techniques we use before a child engages in problem behavior. In fact, antecedent interventions can actually prevent problem behavior from occurring.
Here are some examples of antecedent interventions:
Providing choices. Choices provide a sense of control and self-determination for a child with autism/ASD. For example, you can ask your child which task he wants to do first, math homework, or taking out the trash.
Changing the physical environment. If your child tends to hit a particular peer in class, the teacher might change the seating arrangement. If a child is distracted by what’s going on outside, the teacher can try closing the door.
Breaking up tasks into smaller components. Many kids are overwhelmed with tasks because they seem too difficult or too long. Breaking up the task (with breaks and rewards in between) is a very successful method of preventing problem behavior.
Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR). This is when a teacher/caregiver provides individualized reinforcement at frequent intervals to decrease the child’s “need” to act out in order to receive reinforcement. For example, if a child is constantly engaging in problem behavior for attention, you can flip the situation by giving the child attention throughout the day at scheduled intervals.
Momentum. One way to make a task less aversive is to ask the child to complete some “high probability” tasks first. High probability tasks are things that the student is very likely to engage in. For example, an ABA therapist might ask a young child to give a high-five, to name some colors, to put away their shoes, and then sneak in something the child has a history of not complying with, such as, “OK now let’s clean up our toys!” In ABA this process is called behavioral momentum. This gives the child many opportunities to see how great it feels to be reinforced for complying with instructions and increases the likelihood that he or she will continue to respond positively to your instructions.
Scheduling. Many students with disabilities become anxious when they do not know what to expect. Implementing a predictable daily schedule often helps calm the child.
Functional Communication Training (FCT). Many children with autism and other disabilities are easily frustrated because they cannot communicate their needs and feelings! Communication training, (spoken words, sign language, and/or picture communication systems) should be a part of every ABA program for children with deficits in communication.
Antecedent interventions are important because they will set your child up for success. Keep in mind that behavior can be related to the time of day, the physical environment, the health of the child, people who are present, etc. So take all of these things into consideration when assessing the impact of the child’s environment on the child’s behavior. Also, it’s a good idea to first determine the function of the problem behavior so that the antecedent intervention selected addresses the main reason behind your child’s behavior.