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The Benefits of Using an ABC Data Sheet

When I first got into this field, I was working with one student, and the consultant coming in told me to collect ABC data. I was too scared to ask what ABC data was. This student was also learning their alphabet, so I just assumed that I was just collecting data on him identifying letters. When the ABA consultant came back and asked for the ABC data, I showed them the identifies letters program and the graph for it. They just looked at me and I went, oh. That’s not what she wanted, is it? Since then, I have learned a lot about ABCs. ABC data sheets are an important kind of data sheet that we can use in many different situations for just about any child. In this blog, we’re talking about using an ABC data sheet.

What is ABC Data Collection?

What does ABC data stand for? If they’re not letters and identifying letters or sounds, what are they? ABC is our way of saying antecedent, behavior, and consequence. The A and ABC is antecedent. What comes exactly before the behavior? You look at the behavior and oftentimes people will say, “what do I do if a child scratches or hits?” I say, “well, that depends on why. Let’s look at what comes directly before the behavior.” Directly before that behavior could be maybe the teacher presented a demand. And if the teacher presents a demand, or a parent presents a demand, and then the student engages in negative behavior, that could be a clue to indicate to me that that function may be escape or avoidance. “I don’t want to do that.” 

Likewise, if the student is playing by themselves, or if mom gets on the phone, or if the teacher is occupied with someone else, and the student engages in negative behavior, the antecedent is that the student was left alone. Or the teacher had to attend to another student in the class. Those things could indicate that it’s a function of attention. An antecedent could be that the student was in line at Walmart and started crying when they saw a chocolate bar. To me, that indicates that the function might be access to tangibles. Antecedents tell you a lot. They tell you what the triggers of those situations are. 

Sometimes I read ABC data sheets and I see the antecedent is always math class, or the antecedent is always a transition. That gives me a lot of really valuable information as well. 

Behavior and Consequence

The behavior itself can be recorded. The B in ABC is behavior. Not only the recording of the behavior, but also how long the behavior lasted, the intensity of the behavior, if there was multiple episodes, or multiple times within one episode. For instance, if a student engages in, say, chin pressing or other self injurious behavior. I’m not going to record the 20 chin presses a student did in a row. I’ll record that as one episode of chin pressing, but there may have been approximately 20, I can’t count that fast. 

Alternatively, you can also count the frequency or the duration of the tantrum. The tantrum lasted two minutes or 30 minutes. The frequency of the hits.

Then the consequence also gives us some information. C in ABC is consequence. When I say consequences, I don’t mean what was the punishment? It’s really about what did the adult do? Or what did another child do after the fact? After the behavior occurs, what happens? Did the teacher all of a sudden stop attending to the one student she was attending to and attend to our student? Or did the therapist lecture our student on the reason why you shouldn’t engage in that behavior? Maybe mom dropped the demand and said, “yep, no problem. You don’t have to do that right now.” Did the child get the candy in the Walmart checkout line? What are all those consequences? That really gives you a good idea of what the hypothesis is. 

Example of ABC Data Sheet

There’s a lot of ways that you can record ABC data. You may want to simply take a sheet of paper and divide it up into three and put a and b and c on it. Likewise, you can also divide up the datasheet and then maybe put down the hypothesis. For the antecedent you’ll put what you think happened right beforehand. Be as specific as possible. Then put behavior and consequence. But also, here’s the hypothesis. Here’s what I think happened. 

For instance, the student was in the Walmart checkout line, was crying, and the consequence was they may or may not have gotten the candy. My hypothesis is that it was access to a tangible that caused the behavior. They were crying because they wanted that chocolate bar. 

Alternatively, if it was math class, and it’s always math class, the hypothesis could be that the student doesn’t like math. Math is too hard, or math is too easy, or there’s a perception around that. That’s what you can record on an ABC data sheet. 

Sometimes I like to be more specific than that. If I give individuals a blank data sheet and tell them to fill it in, the sky’s the limit. I literally get reams and reams of data. But that is really difficult to read and it’s really difficult to write. Put yourself in the teacher situation. The teachers got other learners in the classroom, or the negative behavior is happening so much. People don’t have time to write in these data sheets because they’re just so cumbersome. We really have to acknowledge that and maybe put in place something else. 

ABC Data Sheet Checklist

You can also use an ABC data sheet checklist. You’ve got your antecedent, behavior, consequence, but there’s a list of items to check off in each section. Instead of writing reams and reams of information, you can check off anything that applies to the situation.

You can also put in there a setting event. A setting event answers the question, is there any other conditions in the environment that might cause the negative behaviors? For instance, it was right before lunch and the student hadn’t eaten all morning. Or the student was really late to school, they came in frazzled already. You can add all that in as well. We actually prefer this type of ABC checkoff because it’s really easy to use. That’s typically how we do an ABC data sheet. 

How to Analyze ABC Data

You can use this data to then analyze behavior. So taking a look at it and saying, the function might be sensory, automatic reinforcement, escape, attention seeking behavior, or tangible. It could be a combination of those. 

Once you’ve got your ABCs and you’ve seen that data sheet for a few days, then you can determine some type of treatment plan or how you’re going to conduct a functional analysis to really test that hypothesis out. You can look at replacement skills to be able to teach from there. 

When to Use ABC Data Sheets

A word of caution with ABC data sheets and when making decisions using ABC data is that I wouldn’t put them in place for too long. The purpose of ABC data sheets is to find out the function. Once you’ve determined function, get rid of the ABC and move on to something that’s a lot easier. 

For example, if my student was engaging in hitting and I wanted to know what the function was, I would do an ABC data sheet over three days, maybe a week. I then determined that the hitting is usually during transitions. Once I’ve gotten this information and I really understand that the function is probably this, then I can put in place another type of data collection system. I can just take frequency data, which is much easier. You take a clicker and just click the number of times a student hits versus having to fill out these reams and reams of information. So ABC is really there for the first little bit, just to  determine function. Once you’ve got the function, stop the ABC and go on to frequency collection or duration collection and go from there. 


Today we reviewed what is ABC data used for? We went through the different parts of an ABC data sheet with some examples of using an ABC data sheet. We said that an ABC data sheet is there to analyze the function of behavior. Once you’ve got the function, move on. Get our free ABC checklist to learn more about ABC data collection and how to use the ABC checklist for your clients.

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