Managing Behavior: Internal vs. External

Managing Behavior- Internal vs. External

When working with individuals to help develop self-regulation skills, my goal is to improve the internal management of responding to challenge in their lives. It’s important to note that this is much different than focusing on managing people externally.

The External Approach

In my estimation, nearly 90 percent of what we do for behavior management is following the Antecedent Behavior Consequence (ABC) model. This is how most of us have been trained to manage behaviors. Antecedent is what comes before the behavior. Then we have the behavior followed by the consequence. 

When you examine the ABC model, you’ll see that that is an external model of managing behavior. Since the antecedent or trigger occurs before the behavior, we spend a lot of time trying to manage the antecedents to manage the behavior. 

Who applies the consequences? That is external. Everything around this behavior piece that falls in the middle of this model is externally driven. To sustain the ABC approach, somebody must sweep out these triggers. Then another person must follow behind and apply a consequence within two or three seconds of the behavior 100 percent of the time so that we do not get extinction – which happens in behavior modification.

The question then becomes who is doing all that work for all these individuals? This is a time-intensive model. How does this model interact with responsibility and accountability? If you think about the ABC model, how is it reinforcing this idea that Johnny is responsible for Johnny’s behavior? 

Unintentional Impact

We are implying that the antecedent causes the behavior, and the consequence is supposed to change the behavior. We have these two external forces that the individual concludes are controlling his or her behavior.

If this is the case, then what am I responsible for? The problem is that I might start to develop this idea that I am responsible for changing the antecedents or changing these triggers. 

With the ABC model, individuals may conclude that in order to impact their behavior and make their behavior what they want it to be, they must try to change these antecedents — which they have little control over. We can only control ourselves and our thoughts and desires. So, they fail often trying to change these triggers. Frequent failing can lead to learned helplessness. 

It’s impossible to manage others and eliminate the various triggers that may occur each day. What we have found through studying individuals with poor self-regulation skills is that they often come to the conclusion that they do not have much control over themselves. They feel controlled by others, which is unfortunate. 

The other behavior that the ABC model unintentionally promotes is avoidance. Individuals learn to avoid their antecedents in order to change their behavior. In my mind, antecedents are challenges. We teach people to become adept at avoiding challenges instead of equipping them with skills to manage challenge better

The Need to Focus Internally

So, think about the concept of internal versus external management of behavior. How does that line up with responsibility and accountability? What is our real goal for individuals, and where are we going to put our resources? My research and experience as a clinician have proven that by focusing internally and equipping individuals with the skills to self-regulate, they will be better prepared to manage any challenge that they may come across.

About the Author

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Brad Chapin, LCP, MLP

Brad Chapin is a masters level psychologist and a recognized thought leader in the area of Self-Regulation. He is also Director of Clinical Services at a large regional medical center. The author of four books including Helping Young People Learn Self-Regulation, Brad is the creator of the Self-Regulation Training System. He is an international speaker, blogger and consultant on utilizing engaging, creative interventions from an evidence-based framework to help children and adults succeed.

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