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The comprehensive guide to the four functions of behavior

The comprehensive guide to the four functions of behavior

Everybody everywhere does everything they do for one of four reasons. They either want something, something feels good to them, they want attention, or they’re trying to get out of something. This is a piece of advice I provide each of my families within the first ten minutes of meeting for the first time during our ongoing parent meetings. As an autistic individual myself, I want people to understand that behaviors are never random, but rather they can be broken down into an explanation that is reasonable, concise, and, most importantly, significant for the individual being observed. 

There is this constant concern, and intimidation, that determining why individuals do what they do is challenging. For most, it can be because there are a million and one reasons why someone could be doing something. In reality, research and evidence-based psychological journals provide insight into why individuals commit the actions they do. Simply remembering the acronym “EATS” (escape, attention, tangible, sensory) can help support you, the parent, to better determine why a person does something and, what you can do in order to help decrease any challenging behaviors presented. 

Function #1: Access to tangible

Picture this - you’re a mother or father and today is the day. The dreaded day of taking your son or daughter to the local grocery store. It’s dreaded not for the crazy prices of today’s fruits and brand-name items, but rather because you know that your child is going to beg and plead for their favorite cereal or a toy they took a glance at on the way in. A parent can say no, but what comes next is an incredibly loud and severe tantrum that can range anywhere from intense crying, and to aggression, self-hitting or self-biting. 

At this point of the tantrum in the grocery store there are now onlookers, passerbys, and people who feel they know the whole situation. However, most don’t know the situation and have a difficult time grasping that the child being observed has an incredibly difficult time expressing himself because they are either nonverbal or have not learned how to appropriately respond to social situations such as this. 

When we think of access to tangibles, a child having a tantrum at a toy store is an easy example to consider. It’s all about what a child desires in the moment and how they request it. However, it is also just as important for the parent or guardian to respond in the most appropriate way when seeing these tantrums occur. 

If the first initial reaction we have is to give the child the toy in order to make the tantrum stop, the question we need to ask ourselves is, “what did the child just learn in that moment?” What would we learn if we wanted food from a vending machine and saw that all we needed to do was shake the machine a bit and food would come out? We would stop bothering with putting money in a vending machine because we, in this instance, learned we can shake the machine and get the same result as if we would have spent the money. Using this logic, the child has now learned that they can throw a tantrum in order to get the toy they want. So consider what other strategies you could use in order to turn a dreadful trip to the grocery store into one where you can happily get your $2.95 chocolate milk and head back home. 

Function #2: Attention

As your guide through these four functions of behavior, why do you, the reader, think I am writing these examples and spending time providing this article? Even the action of me typing out these words is purely in the hopes that I gain your attention in such a way that you remain excited and overall happy with the knowledge you are being provided. This is in the same light that children may display different problem behaviors or commit different actions for the sake of attention. 

There is something that needs to be clarified before we keep going. Attention does not always need to be positive to cause a behavior to increase. Scolding and berating a child when not following directions can be as impactful and significant to a child, or anyone for that matter, as an embrace or compliments can be. It’s a good rule of thumb to note that eye contact, verbal comments, or physical touch can lead an individual to continue the behavior they are displaying. 

This has nothing to do with how often the child is being praised, but rather the child learning what gets them the attention they are looking for in that moment. If a child jumps up and down on their bed only to then be told by his mother to get down, the child will either a) get off the bed and never do this again, because they realize this is a household rule or b) will get back on at a later time because they have learned they will always get Mom to come back into the room to speak to them. 

There are many motivations that can lead to this function, but praising the behaviors you want to see while ignoring the behaviors you would like to decrease will only further support you in making sure that these problem behaviors are resolved. So the next time you want your child to stop jumping on the bed, be sure to praise them when they're standing away from it, so that way there is less of a chance of them bumping their head in the future. 

Function #3: Automatic (sensory)

My local zoo is always thinking of so many different ways of getting their guests more involved with the animals, while at the same time, ensuring their safety. Recently, they opened an experience that allows a guest to feed the giraffes bits and pieces of leaves straight from the palm of their hand. The idea of this giant and majestic animal coming towards me was already a sight to be seen, but being further reinforced by my fiance to keep going and let the animals eat the leaves from my hand was altogether a stimulating experience. 

Feeling these purple alien-esque tongues come toward me and wrap around my hand, while all the while feeling like sandpaper, was a feeling I can’t quite describe. What I do know though is that it was a feeling that I could not contain and I started to flap my hands out of pure excitement. I couldn’t believe it! I, of all people, received this incredible experience to become further educated about this animal. That is what the automatic or sensory function is. As an autistic individual myself I wanted to attempt to describe what I feel almost every day and how to appropriately provide an answer to you. It is not a perfect answer by any means and is, more so, an individualized answer to specifically me. However, I hope this is an example you can take with you in order to better understand your child.

For your child, these sensory feelings can occur for a multitude of reasons. However, the most important question is asking yourself whether or not the sensory action in question is socially appropriate. Above all, we want to see the child socially accepted into society. There are different replacements that can occur in order to ensure a child is following socially appropriate norms, but also ask yourself what is the harm in some of these behaviors. Is my hand flapping bothering anyone? No. Does my fiance find it cute and endearing? Yes, and to me that is all that matters. 

Ask yourself what is best for your family and what is best for your son or daughter. Personally, as a BCBA and autistic individual I focus less on the behavior if it is not harming a child’s growth or the progress of others. It is something that can be reviewed through a case-by-case basis, but something that truly needs to be discussed in further detail to better support each child that presents it. 

Function #4: Escape

While scrolling through social media you see that a phone call is being received. Excited, but only for a moment, because you see that the caller ID reads “scam likely.” Soon, that smile fades and you quickly press the red phone button to end the call. Why did you do that? What were you trying to accomplish? You were simply trying to escape the annoying phone calls that add up to nothing more than a waste of time. Much like you escaping those phone calls, children will attempt to throw tantrums or demonstrate other behaviors to get out of the work that is presented to them. 

Throwing tantrums to get out of chores or verbally refusing when being asked to wash the dishes will only work if they are able to use these actions to get out of completing the requested task. This is important to remember because this, in general, represents the escape function. Escape-maintained behaviors are only maintained if the behaviors in question help get the child out of situations. Any length of time is too much and so, it is important to immediately have the child continue with the requested task and not allow the child to start a tantrum to begin with. 

Why do the four functions of behavior matter?

So why does it even matter? Shouldn’t the child know what is expected of him or her? Well, not exactly. Children, specifically those with an autism diagnosis, present difficulty with following through with requested tasks without being provided plain language to accomplish these tasks. Visuals are incredibly important and so are specific listed out task items. As stated earlier though, these four functions of behavior help you and your behavior analyst identify the reason why your child engages in a certain behavior.

By understanding the why, the next step of this procedure can begin moving into place. A child’s behavior analyst can take this hypothesized function of behavior and choose different and individualized interventions that can better suit the needs of your child and the behavior’s severity. Let’s take a look at one of our previous examples, the grocery store. Looking back we saw a child cry profusely for a toy that the parents had no intention of purchasing. As stated earlier, the best decision is to not buy this toy to stop the behavior from happening. Actually, instead the parents can avoid the toy area all together, they can provide the child with their favorite toy before they enter, or provide a visual “first, then” board that states “first, we get our chocolate milk, then we can go play at home.” 

As a disclaimer, these are all interventions used for a hypothetical situation and are not suited for use as a “one size fit all” group of strategies. This is what can be determined by your specific behavior analyst or, with training and guidance, by you. The goal throughout this and many other articles will always be to support you through this incredibly challenging journey. Parent meetings and consistent educational content will continue to guide you through the most difficult questions. These functions of behavior can each be provided with individualized interventions as well as determining strategies that match the same purpose as the current behaviors being displayed. 

What is functionally equivalent in four functions of behavior?

Above all else, we want to see the child grow up to be socially accepted, but also happy. We can’t necessarily do that by removing all the behaviors that a child is showing because, as we have learned, a behavior is any action that is done by someone. We have learned that behaviors all occur for one of four reasons and so, rather than removing all behaviors from a child we focus more on decreasing the frequency or duration of inappropriate behaviors while increasing the frequency or duration of appropriate behaviors. Functional equivalence is something analysts refer to when discussing different replacement behaviors that can provide the same or similar purpose to the individual as the original behavior.  It is important that the replacement behaviors match the original function as much as possible for greater success. 

For example, a child who engages in teeth grinding for automatic (sensory) input may be taught to use a chewy tube as a functionally equivalent replacement behavior. The use of a chewy allows the jaw and teeth to receive pressure without doing damage.

How are the functions of behavior identified?

Behaviors can occur for a number of reasons and it can be challenging to determine the true reason why people do what they do. However, your behavior analyst is a scientist first and foremost and what do scientists do? They form hypotheses! Once observed, a behavior is given a formal hypothesis that a behavior analyst uses in order to better determine what strategies should be used to better decrease problem behavior, such as crying, aggression, and self-injurious behavior. What is important though is to remember that these strategies are individualized to the person as well as the patient’s current hypothesized function. Functions of behavior can change, but a behavior analyst will continue to document and record data to better determine the next steps for decreasing problem behavior and increasing appropriate behavior. 

The natural steps in even coming up with a hypothesis can start with the analyst simply observing a behavior for themselves. This direct observation will give the behavior analyst a better idea of why a behavior may be occurring, but if an analyst is unable to observe a behavior there are several different strategies that can be used to better determine a function. The behavior analyst may either interview his therapist or the parent to understand more about a specific behavior or they may rely on ABC document sheets. These sheets will be further discussed later in this article. 

However, if the interviews, direct observations, and ABC sheets are unable to provide the data they are looking for, the behavior analyst may complete a functional analysis with you and your child. Think of the strategies spoken of earlier as being able to go to a doctor and describe what hurts and then being given medicine to assist with the concern. A functional analysis would be similar to a doctor being unable to determine the root cause of a problem and ordering an MRI to be done next. A functional analysis allows the behavior analyst, with parental approval, to put your child into different scenarios to identify why they may engage in the behaviors.

For example, when testing to see if a behavior occurs because of attention, the analyst may provide an excessive amount of attention to the child regardless of the behavior to assess if the behavior continues, increases, or decreases. 

What are the next steps?

Once the functions are identified, your analyst will work with you to develop interventions as replacement behaviors as mentioned previously in Why do they matter? And What is functionally equivalent. These goals will go into your child’s individualized treatment plan. In addition, a behavior analyst will be able to discuss the different interventions that are being chosen to better support your son or daughter through their different observed behaviors.

It should be noted that it is acceptable for a parent or guardian to explain any difficulties or confusion they may have with the completion of some of these interventions in the home setting. A behavior analyst will always be willing to better support your family with a different explanation or choose interventions that better suit your family dynamic. Above all else, a collaboration between the behavior analyst and parent or guardian is a partnership that comes together to better support the growth of the child being supported.  

ABCs and the four functions of behavior 

Before we begin, it is important to note that ABC documentation stands for “antecedent,” “behavior,” and “consequence.” This document goes hand-in-hand with the functions of behavior because the documentation being recorded describes a current situation that involves a specific behavior. An antecedent to a behavior is what occurs immediately before a behavior is observed, a behavior is the action that is being observed, and finally, a consequence is what occurs immediately after a behavior. Often, when we hear the word “consequence” we feel it means that something negative is about to happen or that somebody is being reprimanded when, in reality, we take part in consequences every day. 

Consequences occur after every action we take part in from making breakfast to getting ready for bed. For example, if I talk to my mother on the phone and hang up after telling her goodbye, then my consequence would be me hanging up the phone. Consequences simply refer to the actions we take once completing another action. The words presented in this text you are reading are the consequence to me, the writer, typing on my keyboard. However, when a behavior analyst records antecedents, behaviors, and consequences he/she is using it for further in-depth study of why a person does what they do. This documentation, as mentioned earlier, is used to further develop a hypothesized function of a particular behavior. This data is then used to both increase appropriate behaviors while decreasing inappropriate behaviors. 

Using ABCs to increase desired behaviors

Let’s look at the behavior known as aggression, as this is something that can often be seen by those who are unable to appropriately respond with a socially accepted form of communication. The problem with aggression is that we don’t truly understand why a person may be demonstrating it. It could be because they want attention, or it provides a certain sensation to hit/kick someone, or a child has learned that they can hit someone to get out of doing work, or maybe a toy was taken away from them and they will do anything to get it back. 

This is where the ABC data comes in along with the function of the behavior. For instance, if we understand that aggression occurs because the child wants attention then the next step is to determine the best way to promote desired behaviors. Maybe instead of hitting someone the child learns to tap an adult on their shoulder to get attention. There are a number of ways to promote desired behavior that we can discuss, but what matters is understanding that the ABC data provides insights that would be lost otherwise. 

Using ABCs to decrease undesired behaviors 

There are, often, some behaviors that need immediate attention. There are behaviors demonstrated that need to be removed entirely for the safety of the child and those around him/her. ABC data can help with this too as it allows us to understand patterns regarding when a behavior occurs or even with who or where a behavior occurs. For behaviors like self-injurious behavior or property destruction it is important to truly understand why they occur in order to decrease the behavior's likelihood.  

Common questions & criticism parents have about four functions of behavior 

“This seems like an oversimplification…”

One of my favorite phrases I hear in my field comes from parents and therapists who say that a behavior occurred randomly. Nothing in our behavioral world happens randomly and these four functions of behavior may seem like an oversimplification because we spend so much time considering the multitude of different variables regarding why something can occur. It can be overwhelming and, honestly, pretty exhausting to think about the millions of reasons why someone may demonstrate a behavior. However, when it comes down to it every action we take part in can be broken down into these four functions of behavior. 

Rather than considering all that we may have missed because we are breaking down a behavior into four functions, consider everything we missed because we were so worried about the millions of other factors that go on in a person’s day. This way of thinking can further promote understanding and help better support a hypothesis for why someone does what they do. 

“Why describe behaviors with a “function” instead of what the behavior looks like (e.g., hitting or scratching)?”

Behaviors can occur for a number of reasons and it is something that we touched on earlier in this article. Functions allow those observing, as well as the behavior analyst, to better understand the next course of action. Specific interventions work well with only specific functions of behavior. These interventions, if given to assist with the wrong function, can inadvertently reinforce a behavior and possibly make it worse. By better understanding the root cause of why a behavior occurs, it allows everyone involved to not mistakenly provide reinforcement to something a behavior analyst is trying to decrease. 

“Can a single behavior have more than one function at once?”

Absolutely! A behavior does not always have one function of behavior and can, at times, have more than one or even all of them. This is where data collection and ABC documentation becomes so important, because it allows the user and the behavior analyst to better determine why someone is doing what they do. A behavior can switch functions of behavior so quickly, but there are also different interventions that can be used to tackle each function presented. If a child begins to throw a tantrum in class to get out of a classroom activity provided, as well as to get the teacher’s attention, we can hypothesize that the tantrum’s function of behavior was escape and attention. However, knowing these functions of behavior will allow a behavior analyst to suggest an intervention that best suits tackling both of these functions to decrease the problem behavior. Functions of behavior can switch so quickly, but working together with a behavior analyst to provide insight into a behavior will allow for a successful collaboration. 

“Am I doing enough?”

First and foremost, to those reading I want you to understand that taking these steps and reading articles like this only solidifies the amazing job you are already doing for your son or daughter. You are looking for ways to better understand them and further support their needs. There is a plethora of information found throughout the internet and in libraries, but reading articles like this only further supports the answer that you are doing enough. As you continue to read our articles I will try to support you in any way I can as well as provide helpful tips and tricks that will allow you to learn about autism. If there is a certain topic you’d like for me to discuss by all means let us know and I will research it in order to provide you with the best information possible. 

-Armando J. Bernal, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA

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