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What's Your Function? The 4 "Reasons" for all Behavior.

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

“He just does that out of nowhere!”

“She does it for no reason!”

If you haven’t heard one of these phrases, you probably haven’t hung around too many parents. It’s usually easy to point out what a child’s bad, or in ABA-speak "maladaptive", behaviors are but it can be pretty tricky to figure out why they’re engaging in that behavior. For example, you know that Johnny shouldn’t be picking his nose...but you can’t figure out why on earth he’s doing it! (More on this later...)

A common misconception is that behaviors will sometimes happen for no reason, but all behaviors can be boiled down to one (or more than one) of four reasons, or in ABA-speak: "functions of behavior". They are: Attention, Escape, Access, or Automatic. These functions, are important to identify because they can help us determine how we should intervene on a behavior. Once we can identify the function(s), we can stop the behavior from occurring, or on the flip-side, encourage the behavior to continue.

Attention: The person engages in this behavior because it gets them attention--good or bad! Attention can involve vocal communication, eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, and physical interaction. This attention can look like:

- Saying “Great job!” and giving high fives

- Frowning or making an upset face

- Hugs and tickles

- Saying “No! Don’t do that!”

- Talking about the behavior to another person in front of them

- Turning around and facing them.

We can assume the person prefers the nice attention, but when they can’t get that, they’ll often settle for the not-so-nice attention mentioned. Either way, the person is looking to get some type of response from another person, or group of people.

How do we know when a behavior is attention seeking? They are usually looking for your reaction! Check to see if the person is looking at you right after the behavior, or calling your attention to the behavior (eg: “you can’t catch me!” or “haha, I hit you!”).

Escape: The person engages in this behavior because it gets them out of a non-preferred task or demand. These behaviors are can be appropriate, inappropriate, or even helpful.

Saying “I’m all done. Can I leave?”

Pointing at a “break card”

Ripping up the math homework to get out of it.

Running away from the table when you take out their homework

Needing to suddenly use the bathroom before the class

Offering to help with chores to avoid writing a paper

How do we know a behavior is Escape maintained? The behavior happens in the presence of a demand. The behavior does not happen when there is no non-preferred activity or task presented.

Tangible: The person engages in this behavior because it gets them something they want--a preferred item or activity. There are appropriate ways to request things, and inappropriate ways, but both serve the same function.

- Screaming when told “no”

- Saying “my turn please!”

- Snatching toys from other children

- Asking for a raise!

- Robbing a bank

- Crying for a pacifier

How do we know a behavior is Tangible maintained? The behavior happens when the person does not have access to something they want, and can not get it themselves. This may be something they just need to ask for, or it may be when they are told “no”. The person has learned that engaging in these behaviors is an effective way to get access to that item or activity.