Not As Easy As ABC (data)

April 26, 2021

Not As Simple as A-B-C

Liam takes the bus to school.

Liam didn’t get a good night sleep last night. He woke up late, so there was A LOT of stress and yelling to get his coat and shoes on and get to the bus stop. Liam’s parents were yelling at each other because everyone was late. He hates when they yell. Liam had a high stress level before he ever got on the bus to school.

He gets on the cold bus, and gets teased by some kids because of his Paw Patrol hat. He loves Paw Patrol. This adds to his stress!

Flustered but happy to be in school, he walks into class and he sees on his clip chart that he’s in green. Everything’s great, right? You’re in GREEN! Ready to learn! Yeah, right!

The morning is going ok, but a few kids in class are having a hard time and his teacher is frustrated that she has to keep stopping instruction. Charlie got his clip moved to yellow. Liam hasn’t gotten in trouble, but he’s upset that his teacher is frustrated and he’s worried that in some way, he contributed to it, so this adds to his stress even more!

At some point, the stress could be too much and Liam could FLIP HIS LID! It could be during morning meeting, or centers, or outside at recess. There’s going to be a final straw. There very well could be a “problem behavior”. In a behavioral mindset, we would only look at the observable behavior, and that’s unfair to Liam!

In the current status quo, we often hear the terms “Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence” (A-B-C) when trying to assess why a certain behavior occurred. In the behavioral literature, the Antecedent refers to what happens JUST BEFORE the challenging behavior. The Consequence is what FOLLOWS the Behavior. There’s a lot of data taken to determine the “function of a behavior”, and strategies are put in place to extinguish the problem behavior and reward what is deemed appropriate behavior.

Data doesn't fall from the sky, though. HUMANS decide WHAT to measure, then do their best to measure it. So, the values and capabilities of the people in charge of the data determine what data gets collected.

If you were trained to assess observable behaviors, you will take data on observable behaviors.

When you abandon a behavioral mindset and subscribe to a developmentally-informed, biologically respectful mindset, you quickly see the problem with A-B-C data, and measuring behavior in general.

When we only focus on observable behavior, only take data on observable behavior, and implement strategies to improve or extinguish observable behavior, we miss a lot! We also go down a dangerous path that uses rewards and punishments to get compliance. Neuroscience has taught us that there’s more to a behavior than what we “observe”. We know how the brain lights up in response to stress. We know how the brain lights up with sensory input. Yet, we still rely on an antiquated way of thinking to try and get kids to comply and meet our expectations.

One of the many problems with A-B-C data is that what’s ACTUALLY causing the problem is not necessarily what happened immediately before the challenging behavior occurred. Liam is a perfect example. “Digging deeper” allows us to get to the root cause(s) of the problem and allows us to make more durable changes in behavior.

We can add a million scenarios to Liam’s or any child’s story that would encourage us to look BEYOND the observable behavior.

What do we know for sure?

Liam does well if he can, and Liam wants to do well.

We often see a challenging behavior and immediately go to behavioral assessments. Data is taken and strategies are then developed based on that data. However, the data must be good data, and to only look at observable behavior and the “antecedent” is a disservice to the very child we’re trying to help.

It’s time we change the way we support kids. The science is on our side.

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