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ABC, so what? The importance of analysing behaviour data

Author: Matt Wicks, Outreach Consultant


15th November 2022 | 4 mins read

7 in 10 autistic pupils believe that school would be better if more teachers understood autism.[1] Pupils with Special Educational Needs are also 4.5 times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to those without additional needs.[2] With school budgets being stretched across the country it is more important than ever to take an analytical approach to behaviour.

Utilising key elements of Behaviour Analysis can help promote an inclusive learning environment and reduce school placement breakdown. A simple ABC approach can help us to identify the potential cause of a behaviour and effective interventions to reduce the chance of the behaviour reoccurring. Find out how below.


1. Observing the challenging behaviour

The first step is always a functional assessment of behaviours that challenge. This can be anything that prevents a pupil from accessing learning or presents a risk to themselves or others. Including but not limited to – running away, shouting, self-injurious behaviour, aggression towards others.

There are a number of ways to do this, but it always includes:

  • direct assessments – observation of the pupil and the behaviours that challenge
  • and indirect assessments – analysing data and discussions with caregivers and those who know the child well.

Data can take many forms, and in these initial stages, the most common data recorded is ABC data. ‘ABC’ stands for Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence. It is important to record what is happening:

A) immediately before the behaviour – Was the pupil asked to do something? Did they hear a loud noise?
B) the behaviour itself – Did the pupil run away from their parent? Did they throw the iPad on the floor? Did they rip up the worksheet?
C) what happened immediately after the behaviour – Did the pupil get to eat the biscuits? Did the teacher send them out of the class?

The ABA datasheet may be open with space to write what happened, or it may simply have tick boxes with pre-determined categories for each of the A, B and C. It is vital that the data recorded is as objective as possible. Only record what you saw. Don’t make assumptions about the thoughts of the individual, their intentions, or what had happened earlier in the day.


2. Analyse the data to find the cause of the challenging behaviour

Once the ABC data has been recorded for a few days/weeks, the behaviour analyst will analyse the data and attempt to determine the cause or “function” of the behaviour. It is vital to first rule out any potential medical causes or internal factors. Once you rule out medical causes, look for patterns in the antecedents (or triggers). For example, is there always challenging behaviour following the presentation of maths worksheets? Or when the individual enters the lunch hall?

Patterns of the consequences can also help to identify the function of behaviour. For example, if the teacher always removes a request when behaviours that challenge occur that can be an indicator to why the behaviour is happening.

Functions of behaviour

Many behaviours will have also multiple functions. For example, an individual may escape a situation but also gain access to a favourite toy. They could get attention for a behaviour, which in turn means that they are avoiding the lesson.


3. Developing a behaviour support plan

The final step in the initial input from a behaviour analyst is to develop an individualised behaviour support plan (BSP). A BSP details the behaviours that challenge with clear examples to ensure objectivity. The next section of the BSP covers the environment, and what adjustments are required to the physical (e.g. layout of the room, use of adapted furniture), interpersonal (e.g. how others interact with the individual) and programmatic environment (e.g. use of visual schedules or token boards).

A vital part of a BSP is the section on skills teaching. Behaviour analysts are not looking to simply reduce behaviours that challenge on their own. This is because behaviours that challenge can be symptomatic of a skills deficit. For example, if a pupil is ripping up their work because they find it too difficult, we can adjust the difficulty level and work on pre-teaching for the lesson. We can also teach the pupil to ask for a break, rather than ripping the worksheet.

Proactive over reactive

So far, the strategies included in the BSP have been proactive, focusing on the arrangements made to the environment and the skills being taught. These are implemented before the behaviours that challenge occur and reduce the likelihood of them happening in the first place. When behaviours that challenge do occur, we need to have reactive strategies to ensure that the pupil and others remain safe and the situation is de-escalated effectively. This could be safely evacuating the room and allowing the individual time to calm down. These are a last resort, and you want to be using the reactive strategies as little as possible. Therefore, you should always have more proactive strategies than reactive strategies.

Finally, there is a section of the plan that covers recovery, and a return to baseline. These strategies are really important and allow for a debrief of incidents and ensure that the individual is calm and ready to learn again. This ends the initial steps for analysing behaviour. Moving forward support staff should all be made aware about how to implement the BSP, and then adjustments can be made to the plan where necessary. A BSP is individualised and therefore when circumstances change, the plan should change in line with the circumstances.


Learn more

When behaviour is a barrier to an individual accessing education, there are many strategies to support them to reduce the behaviours that challenge and learn the skills that were missing. By using the skills of a behaviour analyst and analysing behaviour, pupils can get the support they need and schools can provide a more inclusive environment for learners.

For more information on BSP’s, get in touch with our Outreach Team today. Or, if you’d like to find out more about ABC’s and behaviour, watch our recent Lunch and Learn webinar which goes into more detail on the topics covered above.



[1] NAS School Report, 2021

[2] exclusions and suspensions data in England, 2022

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