Monday, June 25, 2018

understanding the functions of behavior

Parents and caregivers of children with and without autism often ask many questions that start with- 

"Why does my child do (blank)?" 
or, 
"Why can’t I get my child to do (blank)?" 


To be able to answer these questions in my own life, it was imperative for me to first understand the FUNCTIONS OF BEHAVIOR- "FOB"- (Just kidding. For once, that isn't an actual acronym, but it made me giggle so I'm keeping it in here.)

Understanding the function of behavior is a cornerstone of ABA. Applied Behavior Analysis is a researched-based science in which the environment is manipulated to change behavior. ABA calls for the assessment of behavior and the environment it occurs in, prior to any treatment. Once extensive data is collected, treatment is applied to decrease problem behavior AND increase desired behavior. This all sounds very formal and fancy, so let's break it down.


Behavior is any observable action made by an individual. Behavior is NOT synonymous with bad behavior. The following things are behaviors: working out, eating, riding a bike, raising your hand in class, cleaning up, HIDING IN THE PANTRY EATING KIT KATS. The function of a behavior is the reason why people behave in a certain way (Yep, even you and me). The book, Behaviorspeak defines Function of Behavior as, "the variable maintaining a given behavior (e.g, what might be reinforcing behavior?)" People engage in millions of different behaviors each day. 

Although everyone's behaviors are unique, the reasons for doing these different behaviors fall into four main categories. We have to become private detectives to figure out the function in order to understand how to appropriately design an intervention to stop unwanted behaviors and increase wanted behaviors. Without understanding the function of a behavior any intervention put in place could be ineffective, or unfair to our learners. The four main functions are:

Sensory: The individual behaves in a specific way because it feels good to them or meets a sensory need.

Escape/Avoidance: The behavior occurs to escape a person, task, or environment.

Attention Seeking: The individual behaves to get focused attention from parents, teachers, siblings, peers, or other people that are around them.

Access to Tangibles: The individual behaves in a certain way in order to get a preferred item or engage in an enjoyable activity.




We can use an acronym for this one: SEAT. Sensory, Escape/avoidance, Attention, Access to Tangibles. I don't believe all behavior is communication. However, I do believe that all behaviors serve a function. Kids don’t do things like injure themselves simply because they have autism. When behaviorists analyze the situation, its important that they have:


  • A clear description of the behavior (the topography).
  • An understanding of what is happening before the behavior occurs; to include the environment and behaviors of other people within it. Within behavior analysis, this would be called the "antecedent".
  • A description of what happens after the behavior occurs; This would be called the "consequence" within behavior analysis.
  • The identification of desirable behaviors that the child can already engage in so they may be used to substitute the challenging behavior. For example, if a child can already make requests, then they could be taught to say “I need a break” instead of screaming or becoming aggressive.
  • A data analysis of the behavior occurring in diverse environments which includes the above information.

Here is more information on Functional Behavior Assessments.

So, let’s use a hypothetical behavior of a boy named Luke. Luke hits his head on the table.  We can’t assume anything from just this sentence. Let’s talk about what the function COULD be based on the functions of behavior.

1st: medical should be ruled out for any behavior. This is important! 

Sensory- the pressure on his head meets a sensory need. He only engages when he needs the release.
Escape/avoidance: He hits his head when he is given a task to complete that he doesn’t want to do.
Attention: whenever he hits his head adults surround him and give him attention. At home it’s- Oh baby, don’t hurt yourself. And an adult picks him up and rocks him. At school he is scolded-DO NOT BANG YOUR HEAD! That’s dangerous Luke! 
Access to tangibles: He hits his head because when he engages in this behavior, his mom attempts to distract him by giving him his favorite toy or candy. 

The intervention must be based on the WHY, and all the above factors must be analyzed. If not, in cases like Luke's mom giving him candy- we can mistakenly increase an unwanted behavior. Luke has learned- if I want candy- all I need to do is hit my head. Instead, the mom should give candy to Luke when he is engaging in wanted behavior, and she should withhold candy when he is engaging in head banging. She should also teach a replacement behavior of requesting candy with Luke's current method of communication. ALL PEOPLE NEED A FUNCTIONAL METHOD TO COMMUNICATE TODAY. Vocal, Picture exchange, Speech Generating device- doesn't matter what, as long as they have one.

Or in the case of the SENSORY function- enjoying the pressure of the hit- a replacement behavior must be offered. Perhaps Luke needs tight squeezes, or a weighted vest, or to engage in exercise before the pressure builds up. Consulting with an Occupational Therapist can be imperative for our sensory seekers and avoiders.

When we understand the functions of behavior, we  better know how to support our learners. Some behaviors need to be replaced with a behavior that fulfills the same function, some behaviors need to be ignored (the behavior- not the child). But we don’t know which is which without understanding WHY. 

That's why there is no simple answer to the question of, "Why is my child engaging in XYZ?" But understanding the WHY is the first step. HERE are some function based strategies for affecting behavior. 




Understanding the functions of behavior has been life changing for my parenting, and for homeschooling my oldest son Greyson. It's even helped me understand myself better. But even better, it's helped me understand and support my sons better, and helped them be happier and more understood. I often say, being misunderstood is one of life's most painful experiences.


4 comments:

  1. Very informative- works for neurotypical children also as way to encourage better behavior. Will try with my own son.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good day everybody, My names are Lawrence Jackson, I and my wife are very happy to sharing our great testimonies of our family, The best thing that has ever happened to our family is how we won a lottery, Euro Million Mega Jackpot. I and my wife believe that one day we will win the lottery. Finally our dreams came through when I email Prophet Abulele and tell him I need the lottery numbers. I and my wife have spent so much money on buying ticket just to make sure we win. But we never knew that winning was so easy until the day we meant the great spell caster online which so many people has talked about that he is very genuine in casting lottery spell, . So we decide to give him a try. We contacted this great Prophet Abulele and he did a spell and gave us the winning lottery numbers. But believe me when the draws came out we were among the lucky winners. I and my wife won (£100,000 one hundred thousand Pounds) Prophet Abulele truly you are the best, with your great power Prophet Abulele. You can win millions of money through lottery. We are very happy to meet this great man, I and my family will forever be grateful to you Prophet Abulele, if you are out there looking for his help you can reach him for easy communication on Whatsapp +2349022406159 or email him via his email prophetabulelehealingtemple@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. A GREAT SPELL CASTER (DR. EMU) THAT HELP ME BRING BACK MY EX GIRLFRIEND.
    Am so happy to testify about a great spell caster that helped me when all hope was lost for me to unite with my ex-girlfriend that I love so much. I had a girlfriend that love me so much but something terrible happen to our relationship one afternoon when her friend that was always trying to get to me was trying to force me to make love to her just because she was been jealous of her friend that i was dating and on the scene my girlfriend just walk in and she thought we had something special doing together, i tried to explain things to her that her friend always do this whenever she is not with me and i always refuse her but i never told her because i did not want the both of them to be enemies to each other but she never believed me. She broke up with me and I tried times without numbers to make her believe me but she never believed me until one day i heard about the DR. EMU and I emailed him and he replied to me so kindly and helped me get back my lovely relationship that was already gone for two months.
    Email him at: Emutemple@gmail.com  
    Call or Whats-app him: +2347012841542

    ReplyDelete