It often seems next to impossible to understand why our children behave in certain ways. As unclear as it may seem, there is always a reason (or multiple reasons) why we behave the way we do at any given moment. Even if the behaviour our child is engaging in is unfavorable or challenging, that behaviour is meeting a specific need.
Over time, both desirable and undesirable behaviours are learned and maintained through interactions with one’s environment. These behaviour-environment interactions can be categorized as either positively or negatively reinforcing. In other words, the behaviours are strengthened because they consistently help one “get something” or “get out of something”. The longer and more reliably these behaviours are reinforced, the more likely it becomes that they will continue to occur in the future.
According to these principles of reinforcement, there are four basic functions of behaviour that we may use to identify and explain why a behaviour is occurring. Understanding these four basic functions is the first step towards understanding and addressing all of our children’s behaviour, even the challenging ones. So, what are these functions?
The first function is social attention or attention seeking. The goal of attention-seeking behaviour is to gain the attention of a nearby adult or another child.
For example, a child might whine or cry in order to get attention from their parents or another caregiver when they are attending to a sibling or peer. They also may engage in certain behaviours to get others to laugh, play with them, or get people to look at them.
When a child engages in escape behaviours, they are trying to avoid something altogether or get away from something. We often see these behaviours emerge in schools and in homes when a child is presented with a task or chore that they do not want to do.
Consider the example of a student in a classroom throwing work materials off of their desk and yelling at a teacher whenever they are presented with a task. Similarly, a child may run or hide from a parent if they don’t want to take a bath or brush their teeth.
Seeking Access to Tangibles or Activities
Many behaviours result in access to reinforcing materials. Just as pressing a button on the remote changes the channel to a desired show or movie, problem behaviours can produce similarly reinforcing outcomes. A child may cry and tantrum until a favourite television show is turned on or a favourite toy is returned to them.
Automatic or Sensory Stimulation
Automatically reinforcing behaviours in that they can function as both positively and negatively reinforcing depending on the outcome (i.e., consequence). The behaviour may function to give the child some kind of internal sensation that pleases them or remove an internal sensation they do not like.
A simple example of automatic negative reinforcement would be applying aloe vera on a sunburn to alleviate pain. In contrast, a child sucking their thumb would be an example of an automatic positive reinforcing behaviour due to the physical stimulation that it provides.
Generally speaking, a behaviour is assumed to be automatically reinforcing only after social reinforcers have been ruled out. For example, the behaviour may occur even when the individual is alone.
So, which one is it?
Sometimes the function of a behaviour can be determined quite easily, as is the case with several of the examples discussed so far. Other times, the function may not be se clear that we can identify it based on observation alone. In these instances, it is helpful to think of behaviours as three-part events. Every behaviour consists of the same three components: antecedents, behaviours, and consequences.
Antecedents refer to any environmental conditions and changes that exist or occur prior to a behaviour of interest
Behaviours are the ways in which an individual acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus.
Consequences refer to changes in one’s environment that follow a behaviour of interest.
By identifying these components, we can begin to identify existing patterns in our environment that may function as potential triggers and reinforcers for a particular behaviour.
One tool often used to accomplish this is ABC (Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence) Datasheets. Using the example of disruptive classroom behaviour during seatwork, a completed ABC recording may look like the following:
Antecedent: Teacher hands out worksheets and instructs students to complete them independently.
Behaviour: Student throws worksheet off desk and yells “This worksheet is dumb!”
Consequence: Teacher removes worksheet and sends student out into the hallway
By reviewing this datasheet entry, we see that the behaviour occurred following the presentation of work materials. We can also see that the behaviour resulted in escape from both the work demands and the classroom environment. In other words, the behaviour was reinforced via escape from demands. Now that we have determined ‘escape’ as the function of this student’s disruptive classroom behaviour we can begin to identify strategies to assist the student in meeting that same need (e.g., teaching them to ask for a break). We can also ask ourselves why the student is avoiding their schoolwork (e.g., is the material too difficult).
Only once we understand why a behaviour is happening, can we begin to address how to change or replace it. All behaviour occurs for a reason. Learning and understanding the reasons behind those behaviours is the first critical step to teaching functional and appropriate alternatives.
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