Trigger analysis is a system of examining every detail that precedes a client’s negative response, to determine precisely what caused the behavior.
The idea behind trigger analysis is that problem behavior does not come out of nowhere. Instead, every problem behavior has a distinct and unique set of triggers that, with observation, can be anticipated and controlled.
In applied behavior analysis therapy, the system is used to observe and measure behaviors in order to record methods that link to certain levels of behavior. This is to help an ABA therapist expose the triggers (catalysts) that cause certain behaviors, which are being measured. This gives the therapist a lot of data on the trigger and the behavior that follows the trigger.
In the context of ABA therapy, “trigger” is the condition, or the stimulus, that starts a negative behavior response. Trigger analysis, and everything that goes along with it, helps teachers, caregivers, parents, or therapists pin down the exact causes for a target behavior, which opens the doors to reinforce better, more desirable behavior. This can be done with the use of incentives, rewards, or consequences.
For example, a child shows physical aggression by throwing items because they feel they are not being given enough attention. A therapist might do a trigger analysis to measure when, precisely, the behavior takes place, to pinpoint the sequence of events that led the child to feel that they were not being given direct attention.
Problem behaviors don’t come from nowhere, and it is easy to say that every problem behavior has a trigger. However, finding that trigger can be easier said than done, and that is where the work of an applied behavior analyst comes in.
To determine the source of the trigger, the therapist looks at the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequences, better known as the ABCs.
The antecedent is what came first. In trigger analysis, an ABA therapist will document every detail that happened in the minutes and moments immediately before the problem behavior started.
This will mean:
- Making a list of everyone who was present when the behavior happened and what they were doing.
- Noting what activities or events were taking place immediately prior to the behavior.
- Describing the environment. Were there any distinct smells? What was the lighting like? What were the noise levels like?
- Identifying the timeline. Where and when, precisely, did the problem behavior occur?
An important part of trigger analysis is that the therapist’s notes must contain enough details to identify clues that pinpoint the source of the problem behavior.
For example, simply writing about an interaction between two people will not be enough for trigger analysis. The therapist will have to note:
- Where the people were sitting.
- What they were doing.
- A detailed list of who did what, in what order, and what they interacted with.
Even in describing the problem behavior, the therapist cannot simply note that the child was angry. Every tiny detail needs to be recorded for a good trigger analysis. Instead of writing that the child is angry, the therapist should note what specific noises the child made, their facial expressions, what objects they threw, and where they threw them. If the child kicked or struck at someone or something, this needs to be noted as well.
Every detail is important. One of the challenges of being an ABA therapist is to be able to respond to difficult situations while still keeping an observational eye on everything taking place.
The next part of a trigger analysis is describing the consequence, or what resulted from the problem behavior. This means the therapist has to document what happened immediately following the display of behavior. Consequences can increase or decrease the chance of the child performing the behavior again, so the therapist has to pay close attention to how everyone reacts to the behavior and how the parents or caregivers address the child’s actions.
For example, simply summarizing the situation following the outburst is inadequate for a trigger analysis. Instead, the therapist will have to note the exact steps that the parent or caregiver takes when their child reacts negatively.
What does the parent do, moment by moment? What questions do they ask? Does the parent confiscate anything the child was using? How does the child react? Does the reaction change when the parent steps away?
Small observations like these are what will make for a useful trigger analysis. If a consequence that the parent establishes does not decrease the behavior, it will have to be replaced by one that does. Working with an ABA therapist who is conducting trigger analysis will eliminate ineffective consequences and point the way to consequences that can better address the problem behavior.
Reviewing the 4 Points
The penultimate step of doing a trigger analysis is the therapist analyzing their notes to determine how the behavior impacts the child. This means identifying what the child wants to get with their problem behavior. This is important because the notes should help shape a response from the caregivers that will not reinforce those behaviors.
For example, even if a caregiver wants to be empathetic and nurturing, that kind of response might unwittingly reinforce the problem behaviors. A good trigger analysis will point this out.
When it comes to this step of trigger analysis in ABA therapy, there are four points to consider to track what a child is attempting to achieve with their behavior.
- Attention: If the child demonstrates the problem behavior and they receive attention for it, the behavior will continue. This can also be the case for negative attention because any form of attention (even negative attention) answers the need for the child to get some kind of response, no matter what it is. A child may deliberately hurt themselves or a sibling just to get their parents to pay attention to them.
- Access: The child may act in a disruptive way to get access to something. A child may act out because they know that’s the quickest way to get to play on their parent’s tablet.
- Avoidance: Problem behavior may be a way to get out of a situation. Being disruptive in a classroom, for example, might get the child sent out of the room, which may be exactly what they want. As much as the teacher or caregiver may think that removing the child punishes them, it is instead reinforcing the behavior.
- Automatic: Also known as stimming, this is when a child will engage in repetitive sensory behavior because it calms them down when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. This can look like flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, banging their head against a surface, or some similar behavior. An example is a child who hums loudly every time they get in a car because the sight of things speeding by is distressing to them.
Finding the Trigger
Breaking the consequences down like this, an ABA therapist can analyze which one of these four points is at play when dealing with a client.
- If someone always comes over to check on the child when they behave problematically, then it might be attention.
- If the child always gets a toy, a treat, or a device, then it might be access.
- If the child’s problem behavior results in certain activities around them stopping, then it might be avoidance.
- If the child engages in behavior that they feel is the only way they can calm themselves, even if the behavior appears harmful, it might be automatic.
This leads to the final step in trigger analysis, which is narrowing everything down to identify the trigger. This entails a process of elimination, so parents and caregivers will have to experiment with various responses until they find the one that directly addresses the child’s behavior. This requires a great deal of patience, consistency in responses, and further observation by the ABA therapist.
- Does the behavior still happen when the parent does not give the child attention?
- Does anything change if the parent does not stop what they’re doing?
Sometimes, the trigger will not immediately present itself, but the therapy team must continue working until it does.
When the ABA therapist has determined what the triggers are, they can move onto the next step after trigger analysis: behavior intervention.
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ABC’s of Behavior (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence). (July 2017). Psych Central.
Appendix A: Hypothetical Examples of Trigger Analysis. (January 2017). Behavioral Classification System for Problem Behaviors in Schools.
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Four Functions of Behavior – Basic ABA Concept With Examples. (July 2019). Psych Central.
Addressing Setting Events to Make Behavior Plans More Effective for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. (April 2015). Autism Spectrum News.