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What is Antecedent Stimulus?

October 10, 2023

Antecedent stimulus is used frequently with children who have autism. It can help caregivers and teachers understand why a problem behavior may be happening and allows them to shape the behavior to have an either positive or negative outcome. Antecedent is also something that comes before a behavior and is sometimes referred to as a trigger. This can be in reference to someone or something that has just happened before a behavior which triggered the behavior to happen.

What is Antecedent Stimulus?

Antecedent stimulus can be positive or negative depending on what you want the desired outcome to be. For example, antecedent stimuli that are positive can be used to help motivate individuals to make positive choices. Antecedent stimuli that are negative can help shape behaviors by the individuals choosing to make a choice that would avoid the negative stimulus.

Let’s unwrap this topic further to help parents of young people on the spectrum looking to learn more.

What is an antecedent stimulus and how is it different from a consequence?

Antecedent stimulus is often used to refer to a person or event that has triggered a behavior or choice to happen, whereas a consequence is a negative reinforcement you receive that is contingent upon a problem behavior or bad choice that was made. A negative antecedent stimulus is different from a negative consequence. A negative antecedent would cause an individual to fear a consequence if the behavior or choice was acted upon. A consequence is a punishment you receive for a negative action that has already happened.

Let’s look at some examples. In school, a consequence could be having to miss recess as a result of not paying attention to instruction during a teaching lesson. The student made a bad choice of not paying attention and the punishment or consequence was having to sit out and miss recess while their classmates enjoyed their playtime. In contrast, a bell at school that is rung between classes could be seen as an antecedent stimulus. The teachers don’t have to do anything or say anything when the bell rings to let the students know to hurry to their next class. Hearing the bell ring triggers the learners to make a positive choice of rushing off to their next class to arrive on time. The kids know if they don’t arrive to class on time, they are marked tardy. Being marked tardy is the antecedent stimulus. If they receive a punishment as a result of being tardy, then it becomes a consequence or punishment.

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What are the two main types of antecedent stimuli?

Antecedent stimuli can be positive or negative. When the antecedent stimuli is positive, it can help with motivation in helping an individual make better choices or engage in more appropriate behavior. Using this practice or theory, it can help improve the circumstances of both the child’s behavior and the adult if the client is older. For example, if a student is struggling in school or university and the parent offers a positive stimuli or preferred item as a reward for good grades, the student will make a connection between the importance of good grades and receiving a reward. In an attempt to obtain the positive stimuli, the student will become motivated to improve study habits, seek tutoring, and place emphasis on receiving a good grade.

Antecedent stimuli can also be negative to help reduce the occurrence of problem behavior. For example, if a child engages in the use of negative or rude language, negative stimulus could be the removal or restriction of the usage of their cellphone. The child will have demonstrated that they are not happy losing or having their cellphone restricted. Out of fear of losing the phone again, the child would decrease or extinguish the use of rude or negative words.

What is an example of an antecedent stimulus?

An additional example of an antecedent stimulus would be a teacher who gives students a check mark on the board for good behavior and hard work. Whenever the teacher would go to the board to add a check, all of the learners would become quiet and appear to be working hard in hopes of acquiring a highly desired check mark from their teacher. Without having to say a word, just walking to the board triggers the students to engage in positive behaviors. The highly desired check marks would correlate to a positive reinforcement.


Antecedent Stimulus can be positive or negative and can be used by parents and teachers to help modify or change problem behavior. Positive stimuli can be motivating for children and adults to make positive choices and engage in positive behaviors. Negative stimulus can help deter poor choices and challenging behaviors. The student or child will not want to receive the negative stimulus and will strive to make better choices to avoid having to receive the negative stimulus or consequence that accompanies the behavior.

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