The Problems With ABC Charts

Jillian Enright

The antecedents begin long before you might think

When my son first began struggling in school, ABC Charts were considered an important way to dig down and figure out what was causing the problems.

If you haven’t heard of them before, ABC stands for Antecedent, Behaviour, and Consequence: It’s a chart staff are often asked to fill out after a concerning behaviour has occurred.

They might look something like this:

They’re not terrible. They’re a good start for having adults take a step back and make an effort to see the bigger picture. Perhaps filling out an ABC chart will help the person see a little bit beneath the surface behaviour.

A little bit.

There are a few areas in which this approach falls short.

The most glaring problem is the antecedent. Often times, the adult fills out the chart without consultation or collaboration with the student, so the antecedent is only what was seen from the adult’s perspective.

Even if the student is asked for their point of view, the antecedent tends only to go back a few minutes before the concerning behaviours occurred.

A fictional example

Let’s pretend it’s Monday morning. Sammie student is supposed to get up around 6:30–6:45, but today their alarm didn’t go off. Their parent wakes them up around 7am, so they’re already starting their day behind schedule.

Sammie has to hurry through their morning routine — they find being rushed very stressful — barely making it to the bus stop in time to catch the bus.

Sammie then climbs aboard a bus full of students for the half-hour ride to school. The students are excitedly chatting about their weekends, yelling across the aisles to their friends, or chatting loudly to their seatmates.

There is a lot going on and Sammie finds this quite overwhelming. They chat with their friend for a bit, then try to escape into a book for the remainder of the ride.

They finally arrive at school. The students file in to their classrooms where they go through their morning routines.

This includes a writing exercise with Sammie hates. They love creative writing, but they aren’t allowed to write what they want to write about, and they have to write a minimum number of sentences — despite the fact they have dysgraphia and find writing uncomfortable.

Then it’s finally recess time. There’s another flurry of activity as students loudly get dressed in their outdoor gear to head outside. When they finally get out there, they only have about 10 minutes to play before they have to go back inside.

At the door, one of the older students teases Sammie and their friends about what they’re wearing — apparently their clothing choices are not “cool” enough and this merits pointing out.

Another jumble of limbs, coats, boots, and wet socks. Sammie is distinctly uncomfortable. The class activity is loud, Sammie’s socks are wet, and Sammie feels cold.

The students finally settle into their lesson when there is a fire alarm. The students are expected to line up at the door and go outside to practice their fire drill. Sammie usually gets a heads-up about these because they are extremely sensitive to such loud noises, but the teacher must have forgotten today.

Sammie’s hands instinctively fly to their ears, trying to block out some of the overwhelming sound. Everyone is lining up at the door, but Sammie can’t fathom being crowded by their classmates right now, their senses are already so over-loaded.

The teacher impatiently directs Sammie to hurry up and join the line, their class doesn’t want to be the last one in their spot outside. Sammie can’t even hear what the teacher is saying, their senses are overwhelmed and their body feels frozen in place.

The class E.A. approaches and touches Sammie’s arm, trying to gently guide him, pointing to the line-up of students waiting at the door. Sammie recoils from the touch and slides under their desk to avoid the E.A. who is now looming in their space.

The E.A. and teacher assume Sammie is being “difficult” intentionally; perhaps Sammie thinks this is funny and is trying to make their classmates laugh. Sammie has been through fire drills before without issue, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

The E.A. reminds Sammie there is a fun class activity planned for this afternoon, and threatens Sammie will miss out if they don’t comply immediately. The teacher takes the rest of the class out and leaves the E.A. to “deal with” Sammie.

Sammie’s brain is in survival mode right now, their nervous system is sending out all kinds of danger alerts, regardless of whether they are in actual danger. The E.A. invading their space, loud noises, and threats of punishment are all adding to the pressure and stress Sammie is experiencing.

Sample ABC Chart

Here’s what an A-B-C chart of this incident might look like:

None of the adults knew about Sammie’s rushed morning, the loud bus ride, being teased outside, the wet socks, and feeling cold. They saw a student who could follow the expectations every other time in the past, but wasn’t today, so they assumed Sammie was being defiant.

The thing is, we don’t need to know the minute details of a child’s day in order to take a broader view of their behaviour. We may never get to the bottom of all the triggers which led up to the shut-down or melt-down.

Children, depending on their age and level of self-awareness, may not even recognize the impact of all these seemingly minor problems as they add up through the day. In fact, a lot of adults lack this level of self-awareness.

All we need to do is acknowledge and understand the fact that children have valid inner lives of which we are not apart, rather than assume their behaviour is occurring in a vacuum.

This means we don’t assume children are not listening to us as an act of intentional “noncompliance”. Instead, we approach with the understanding they are struggling to follow expectations due to stress, or because they lack the skills and resources to meet our expectations in that moment.

“When stress is present, our perceptions are deeply affected.” — Dr. Lori Desautels

When we do that, we don’t come at kids with increasing demands, increasingly firm tone, physical presence, or threats of consequences if they don’t listen.

Instead, we come beside them with compassion, empathy, and support. We acknowledge their experience, validate their feelings, and offer our help. We make things better instead of worse.

Shifting from addressing behaviours to trying to understand their origins and triggers means making a shift from managing our children to understanding them deeply.” — Dr. Mona Delahooke

Alternative scenario

E.A. Emery sees Sammie is stressed and overwhelmed. Students don’t often climb under their desks for the fun of it, especially when their classmates and teacher are seemingly annoyed with their behaviour, rather than finding it funny.

Emery crouches down to Sammie’s level, but keeps a respectful distance so as not to overwhelm them further. Emery speaks in a gentle tone, doing their best to convey soft facial expressions and calm body language.

Emery names Sammie’s feelings, “I know, those alarms can be very loud, and fire drills can be very overwhelming. I can see this is really hard for you right now.”

The E.A. silently signals the teacher can take the rest of the students out, and offers to practice a fire drill with Sammie on a different day, when they are feeling up for it.

Emery tells Sammie they can stay under the desk as long as they need, but the class will be coming back in soon, and asks Sammie if they’d prefer to go somewhere quiet. Sammie nods.

The E.A. and student go to a quiet room as the alarm bells stop. This room has books, sensory items, and a desk where students can work in a quieter space if they to. Sammie chooses a book and a comfy chair and reads until they are ready to return to class.

The problem isn’t really the charts…

The problem isn’t really the charts at all. The primary issue is adults not giving children the benefit of the doubt and often assuming kids are acting out, willfully “disobeying”.

Children are human beings. They have complex inner lives, they have unique nervous systems, they have worries, fears, and stressors just like anyone else.

Sometimes children don’t understand all the complexities going on in their own brains and bodies, and they don’t have the language to explain their experiences. Many adults are lacking these skills as well. I know I was for a very long time, and I am still working this every day.

I completely understand the temptation to boil behaviour down to a neat chart, to want to make it easy to conceptualize and understand. I’ve tried, many have tried.

It doesn’t work. Behaviour is not simple, it’s incredibly complex, as are our nervous systems. The good news is we don’t have to be neuroscientists to effectively and compassionately support children.

“Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.”
— Alfie Kohn (based on a book by Nel Noddings)

Essentially, we just have to give kids the benefit of the doubt, and the basic decency of being treated like human beings whose experiences and feelings matter.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB


Delahooke, M. (2022). Brain-Body Parenting: How to stop managing behaviour and start raising joyful, resilient kids. Harper Collins.

Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional Parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Noddings, N. (1992). The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. Teachers College Press.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.


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