Broadview Heights ABA therapy

Broadview Heights ABA Therapy Team Breaks Down the Function of Behavior

If your child is receiving Broadview Heights ABA therapy (also known as behavior therapy), you’ve likely heard the term “function of behavior.” It’s a common phrase in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). As behavior analysts, one of the primary steps in behavior modification is identifying the function of behavior. In other words, we need to understand why a behavior is occurring in order to respond appropriately in a way that will help us elicit the desired response/action from the child.

What it comes down to is that behavior, at its most basic level, is a form of communication. Behavior elicits reaction from others. If a child struggles to communicate in appropriate ways (language, body cues, facial expressions, etc.), they may rely on behavior. We as adults and caregivers reinforce behaviors when we respond with their desired outcome. Unfortunately, some of the ways we’re used to responding to “bad” behaviors can end up unintentionally reinforcing them.

We need to ask ourselves, “Why is my child falling to the floor screaming because I told him we’re having grilled chicken for dinner?” “Why is my child hitting me repeatedly from the grocery cart seat?” “Why is my child having a total meltdown when it’s time to get dressed?”

It’s critical to understand that all behavior happens for a reason. If we want to change the behavior, we need to find out the function – the “why” – of it.

Our Broadview Heights ABA therapy team can typically categorize the function of most behavior into one of the following four categories:

  • Attention. Is the child engaging in the behavior because he/she wants attention from someone? This can look different every time, depending on the child but also the target. For instance, that child hitting you from the grocery cart seat: He may not be trying to hurt you, but simply wants your attention. When we respond by looking at them, giving them a stern warning or an admonition to stop, we may, in fact, be unintentionally reinforcing that behavior – because they are getting attention, and may not be able to discern negative attention from positive attention.
  • Access. Is the child trying to obtain access to something? An item or activity? Rather than asking for a toy a friend is playing with, they may simply take it. Maybe their goal is to get a preferred food or comfort item, and a tantrum results in them receiving it.
  • Escape. Is the child trying to evade a particular scenario? If the child’s goal is escape, the non-preferred activity and/or behavior can be in constant flux, but the goal is the same: To get out of it. For example, a child on the autism spectrum, overstimulated by the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of a crowded shopping center may have a meltdown – knowing you’ll take them out of the store – the function is escape. A child may have a meltdown over a particular food to avoid eating it. The child may act up in class to avoid doing a certain activity or assignment; if they’re sent out of the classroom/to the principal’s office, that behavior has been reinforced.
  • Sensory-seeking, AKA, automatic. Is the child engaging in the behavior because it feels good? Lots of “stims” in which children with autism engage (hand-flapping, rocking, etc.) are automatic, sensory-seeking or self-soothing behaviors. They aren’t all “bad” (we don’t like that term anyway), but they can be unhelpful in some situations – and we may be unintentionally reinforcing those responses.

There are ways of appropriately preparing for and responding to these situations in order to positively reinforce desired/helpful behaviors – but first, we need to know the function of that behavior. As behavior analysts, Step. No. 1 in our process is to analyze the behaviors.

We sometimes refer to this process as identifying the ABCs of behavior.

  • A = Antecedent. What is the scenario prior to the behavior occurring?
  • B = Behavior. What is the behavior itself?
  • C = Consequence. What is the result/what happens after the behavior takes place?

When we examine this ABC data over a period of time, we can begin to break down the function of behavior. Once we understand that, we can begin recommending potential changes to the antecedent and/or consequence to alter the behavior, ignoring unexpected/undesired/unhelpful behaviors to “extinction,” and replacing/positively reinforcing the behaviors that are expected/desired/helpful.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides speech therapy to children in Akron, Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

Treatment and Intervention Services for Children With Autism, January 2022, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

More Blog Entries:

When Should Our Child Start ABA Therapy? Dec. 15, 2021, Broadview Heights ABA Therapy Blog