functions of behavior

How To Identify And Understand The Four Functions Of Behavior

What functions of behavior does your child exhibit? Do you ever wonder what is causing the challenging behaviors they display? It can be difficult to identify functions of behavior, and without knowing this information it becomes hard to create a plan for intervention. This blog post will cover four functions of behavior: sensory, escape/avoidance attention seeking, tangible, and social. By understanding these functions of behavior we can start creating plans for interventions that address each function specifically.

How Do I Deal with Problem Behaviors?

This question gets asked all the time. A problem behavior is often thought of as a negative behavior. Typically referring to aggressive behavior that causing safety concerns. However, contrary to this, problematic behaviors could also be as harmless as vocalizations like humming. A problem behavior is defined as any behavior that interferes with the ability to adapt to situations.

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Handling undesired behaviors can be a tricky task if the root of the behavior is not identified. By failing to identify the function of behavior, one can inadvertently reinforce the undesirable behavior. The way we usually react with the behavior might just turn into an automatic reinforcement. This is why knowing the exact function of behavior is crucial in coming up with a solid behavior management plan.

Creating an effective behavior management plan is an important part in successfully helping a child navigate their surroundings, cope with strong emotions like anger and frustration, and learn new skills.

Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA)

A functional behavioral analysis is a way to understand the cause or functions behind challenging behaviors that a child displays on a daily basis. It is often used as a part of functional assessments to help understand the child’s behavior better.

First, a behavior analyst oversees the functional analysis of a particular behavior. This could be someone with specialized training in autism spectrum disorder. The process starts by observing the child and collecting data around the target behavior.

Next step, the behavior analyst will creates a hypothesis about functions of behaviors. The data is then used to analyze the functions and establish strategies for intervention.

Lastly, the behavior specialist is develops a behavior intervention or behavior management plan. This plan is often used alongside an individualized education plan (IEP).

Parents, teachers, and support workers then use this plan to help curve the target behavior to more appropriate alternatives.

FBA’s are commonly used in Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA Services. An ABA therapist (BCBA) conducts the functional behavior assessment as a part of developing the child’s treatment plan. Having a better understanding of a child’s behavior is the best way to begin any behavior plan and can be used hand in hand to teach a new skill and academic tasks.

How to collect data for an FBA

Data is commonly collected through observation and interviews. ABC data collection is the most common way of tracking behavior data.

This data collection method involves identifying the:

Antecedent – what happened directly before the behavior, this includes any setting event that contribute to the behavior

Behavior – objective description of what the behavior looked like

Consequence – what happened immediately after the behavior, including reaction of others

But, more about data collection in another post. Let’s jump back to the functions of behavior.

Can a behavior have more than one function?

Yes! A behavior can take the form of having one or more functions. In this case, the behavior could initially begin by a particular function, then escalate or be replaced by another function. For example, the child’s head butting starts out as tangible after being denied access to a preferred item the action ends up soothing the child then turns into sensory.

In this case, the one behavior ends up serving two different functions. However, when analyzing the data these instances should be recorded as two separate occasions. This way, each function is then separated into their respective scenario and become one single function per scenario.

When there is more than one related function to a specific behavior, the specialist would them label a primary function, secondary function, and so forth.

What are the Four Functions of Behavior?

When trying to remember the functions of behavior, a simple acronym comes in handy: SEAT. Seat stands for Sensory, Escape/Avoidance, Attention Seeking, Tangible. Let’s dive into each of these functions a little deeper.

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Sensory Behaviors

This type of behavior generally elicits a sensory experience or sensory stimulation. Sensory behaviors are also known as Stimulatory behaviors. Stimulatory behaviors (stimming) seem to be the most difficult to extinct since the internal sensation is gratifying on it’s own. Such stimulatory behaviors may look like hand flapping, spinning, jumping, or vocalizations.

Many children with autism have a difficult time regulating their sensory input. These functions of behavior can include excessive noises, tics, and ritualistic behaviors to regulate sensation levels in the body. These functions may include repetitive movements, self-injurious behavior, or rituals. Sensory functions could also be related to tactile defensiveness or they might just need more physical activity throughout the day.

Escape or Avoidance Behaviors

Some functions of behavior can be escape or avoidance behaviors. Escape/avoidance often occurs when the child is trying to get out of a task or situation. It is the most common function for little children as they are learning new skills in settings such as school or aba therapy.

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Younger children might engage in these functions because they are still learning how to communicate their needs and wants. Other individuals who have difficulty communicating, like those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), might also exhibit this function of behavior as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety. Functional communication training is often worked on simultaneously with individuals who are highly anxious and defensive in social interactions.

Running, going under the table, refusing to work, etc are all possible examples of escape/avoidance behaviors. Types of behaviors in this category often look a lot like attention seeking behaviors which is why it is very important to conduct an FBA.

For example:

While doing a worksheet together, Billy’s teacher prompts him to move on to the next question. Billy looks at her and starts to sing, clap, and dance. Teacher then redirects Billy back to the worksheet.

In this example, Billy’s behavior serves as a way to avoid the next task. This is because directly beforehand the teacher presented a task, and hypothetically it is a known pattern. The teacher then choses not to give any attention to the behavior, rather, redirect him back on task.

Attention Seeking Behaviors

Attention seeking behaviors are any behaviors the child does to gain attention social attention. This is important to point out because it is often confused with tangible behaviors. Remember, the goal of attention is – simply – to get attention. Not to gain access to something. Attention seeking behaviors include inappropriate ways to gain attention like destruction, yelling, temper outbursts, repeating requests, etc.

Related Post: How to Make and Use Social Stories

An important thing that I often tell families to try to remember is Negative attention IS attention. If a child is engaging in behaviors for attention, any kind of attention will reinforce the behavior.

For example:

In the grocery store, Billy is with his mom getting ingredients for dinner. Mom is in a rush and focusing on checking things off her list. Billy knocks down a candy bar shelf and looks at his mom. Mom runs to Billy and says “why did you do that?” and apologizes to the people around and continues to sermon Billy about his behavior until they head home.

In the example, Billy’s mom (though understandable!) provided Billy with the attention he was seeking. This kind of negative attention is very hard not to give, but nevertheless reinforces the possibility of Billy doing such behavior again. One way to combat this is to practice “catching the good” whenever and wherever possible.

Catching the good is done by providing positive attention to alternate and desirable behaviors, regardless if the behavior is intentional. For example, Billy is spending time in his room playing with Legos. Mom walks by and says “hi Billy! I like the way you are playing nicely with your toys”. This verbal praise provides Billy with attention lessening his need to seek later on.

Social stories also prove to be an effective strategy in helping children learn replacement behaviors for attention seeking. These stories help them understand social cues and provides them with opportunities to process and reflect on their own behaviors.

Tangible Behaviors

This function is typically related to the child wanting something they don’t have or cannot obtain themselves (i.e., food, toy). In a setting where a child is seeking to gain access to anything physical, this is considered a tangible behavior. Often times we try to work on appropriate ways to request items rather than the child feeling a need to engage in inappropriate behaviors.

Some children are motivated by items that have meaning and significance for them (tangibles) which comes handy when working with tangible reinforcement. Highly preferred reinforcers are used by service providers – and caregivers – to aide in teaching alternative behaviors using strategies such as rewards charts, token systems, and First-Then schedules.

This sort of function because extremely difficult when child wants an item that is not safe or available. A common way to address this issue is through replacement with a more appropriate substitute that satisfies their need for gratification while avoiding the challenging behavior.

For example:

A child wants to bang on the kitchen pots and the mother explains the “pots are not available”. Mother then provides the child with his play pots or – more appropriately – a drum set.

Where Can I Get an FBA done?

There are some options out there to get a consultation or assessment done for your child’s behaviors. Often times, schools would be able to conduct their own research and FBA for the child’s behavior in the school setting. Specialists – like BCBAs and mental health or behavior therapists can be found through government programs or through private practices.

Now you know how to figure out functions of behavior. Parents, caregivers, teachers, and other professionals can use functions of behavior to create a more effective behavior intervention or management plan. Let me know below if you have any experience with odd behaviors. And stay tuned for more future posts on behavior management.