Why we need to look beneath child behaviour

Previously, I spoke about the child behaviour iceberg (find it here), so in this article, I want to look at the ABC of behaviour. When I started my career working as an early years practitioner, later as a Nursery Manager and then a lecturer of early years, (before eventually finding myself as an inspector) I would routinely teach the ABC of behaviour to my staff and students.  It was as simple as falling off a bike and a lesson I continue to use in my work as a therapist, however it is a lesson that we are forgetting in LIFE.

Let me explain….

A B C of behaviour 

The ABC of behaviour looks at child behaviour from the position that everything has an ABC

A – Antecedent (the thing that caused the behaviour)

B – Behaviour (the behaviour being demonstrated)

C – Consequence (the result of the behaviour)

It is a careful reminder  that NOTHING appears without a cause, all behaviours have a reason. They are a child’s way of communicating their needs to us. Therefore, as parents and professionals, our role becomes the detective – the inspector of observation. So all behaviours from children are created by an antecedent – a root cause – a trigger

Skipping the key letters….

However as the years go by, life becomes more fast paced, our time is stretched to within an inch of its ability, we can find ourselves caught focussing so heavily on B and C that we are missing the reason that everything happens….

Let me give you some examples… 

Thumb Sucking – thumb sucking (behaviour) is the resultant factor of a young child feeling an uncomfortable or anxious feeling and NOT knowing what to do with it. Their thumb found its way to their mouth and their brain found a pleasure to replace the pain. The resultant thumb sucking may seem cute as a baby but as the child grows, if their anxiety is not eased then the thumb sucking continues and we become concerned about teeth formation (consequence) and want to remove it. We try nail varnish which tastes horrible but our child overrides it and continues to suck their thumb (because we haven’t eased the anxiety) we try removing it from their mouth whilst sleeping (but they find their way back (because we haven’t eased the anxiety) – see where I am going with this? When we resolve the triggering anxiety (antecedent) which created the thumb sucking then we resolve the behaviour…..

Negative Behaviour – When our child misbehaves we can be quick to punish their behaviour (consequence) embarrassed by their outbursts and wanting them to stop them. However how often do we punish a behaviour to find out later that they were unwell, upset, traumatised, or it was instigated by their now confessing sibling. Behaviour rarely (if ever) appears without cause… when an adult slaps another it was never because they were silent – it was because they were chastised, upset, annoyed or infuriated (see the pattern) – negative behaviour is a behavioural result of an antecedent and where this behaviour keeps emerging it was invariably because of something that happened. This could be because they were bored, upset, annoyed, frustrated, unwell, angry, scared…… if we resolve the emotional driver we can intervene the behaviour.

Immaturity/Rudeness – Ever noticed that in situations where we expect our child/teen to behave impeccably they suddenly have an outburst (behaviour) which makes us want to run for the hills? Immaturity and rudeness are often the resulting behaviour from anxiety or uncomfortable feelings that a child or teen does not know how to process. There is a good reason why we watch lessons at school or incidents that happen where we rely on them behaving well and watch a disintegration unfold (consequence)… If we experience feeling of fear, discomfort, anxiety, embarrassment or paranoia (antecedent) we can often respond by trying to diffuse the situation with being a clown/dismissing it. The brain in its discomfort is trying to remove itself from these feelings and as such it runs for the hills of safety…. by displaying immaturity or rudeness we detract from the discomfort and break the moment – consequentially our parents may want to hide but the child has removed themselves from upset.

How do we help? 

We so often take things at face value, not because we are intentionally trying to be dismissive BUT because life has taught us to be this way. Social media, instant messaging, email, texts, they are all face value, we jump to assumptions, we dismiss easily, we block and remove ourselves, but are we missing the bigger picture of emotional and mental health in our children because of it?

It is a rarity that a child or teen will display a behaviour that does not have an antecedent… (on writing this I couldn’t think of any) but it is a regularity that we do not notice what has happened (or they don’t tell us). So we can become trapped in a cycle of punishing the behaviour but fail to support the child/teen to resolve the reasoning behind it and so the cycle continues (often until as an adult they appear in my office sick to death of behaving in these perpetual cycles).

Consider the child with undiagnosed ADHD, who finds themselves easily distracted by tasks which are not of interest to them. Finding it challenging to participate in self-led study or quiet reading/writing in class. Perhaps, disrupting class by telling jokes or calling out, playing the clown or getting up to walk around class or go to the bathroom at frequent intervals. In some situations, this child can find themselves caught in periods of detentions, being held back at break times or having been removed from the classroom. A lack of diagnosis, particularly in young adolescents can mean that the behaviours become fixated on, when the reality is that the excess energy in their bodies needs those break times to burn it off. The challenge starts, when we identify that the antecedent is the thing we need to change, not the child themselves.


So what can we do?

1. Step back – before you step in step back and look at what could have caused the outburst or the emotion that may be driving it. Take time to observe carefully in the classroom or at home to identify patterns of behaviour.

2. Be aware of additional needs – On occasion, some children may have an unidentified need, or one which is currently being referred for assessment, are there considerations that need to be made for this? What happens if you behave as though they do that a diagnosis in this period?

3. Support resolution of the feeling – if we can identify the feeling we can find support mechanisms (personally or professionally) to support resolving them so the situation is easier to manage and stops the behaviour presenting

4. Implement one strategy at a time – It can be tempting to implement a number of things at once, it is best to trial one strategy at a time and give time to monitor.

5. Get help – If the cycle is continual then seeking professional support to help the child or teen identify their triggers and reprogram them will allow them to find peace of mind (and calmer behaviours).


© Dandelion Training and Development – All Rights Reserved

Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – ARTICLES 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – COURSES 

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit –RESOURCES 


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