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What’s the Function of Behavior?

January 7, 2021 by Christopher Olson




After moving the student to the front of the classroom to keep a better eye on them, you continue observing them placing their head down on their desk.  Even though you allow a student to sit next to their friend, they still hit and kick their nearby peers.  You offer choices to a disruptive student, but they continue to throw papers and books off of their desks.  What do all of these students and behaviors have in common?    The Function of Behavior.  

This is the first post of six in this Behavioral Teacher series.  Check back to continue gaining knowledge and resources to add to your behavioral management skills.  Future posts will contain specific strategies and resources to complete prior to behavior occurring, during the behavior, and what to do after a behavior occurs.

Why Do Children Display Behaviors?

All behavior is a form of communication.  Most, if not all, children use challenging behaviors from time to time.  However, most find appropriate ways to meet their needs in a more positive manner.  It is those instances where children continue to display inappropriate behaviors because they find that the behavior is working for them in either a positive or a negative way.

They discovered if I do (A), then (B) will occur.  The key is to find out WHY they are acting the way that they are.  Once we do that, then we can design appropriate strategies and interventions that make sense for that child.

What’s the Function of Behavior?

Behaviors that are repeated have some sort of function. Identifying the function of behavior means investigating why that behavior is occurring. When we attempt to identify the function we observe and document data in a variety of areas: setting events, antecedents (before the behavior occurring), during the behavior, and consequences (after the behavior occurs).

There are four main functions of behavior – social attention, escape or avoidance of demands and activities, access to tangible items or preferred activities, and sensory (this could be seeking or avoiding sensory input).

1 ~ Attention

The first function is social attention or attention-seeking. The goal of attention-seeking behavior is to gain the attention of a nearby adult or another child.  This goal could be seeking positive or negative attention.  

Examples of Attention may include: 

  • When a child might whine to get attention from their parents.
  • Calling out or making inappropriate comments to get others to laugh at them.
  • Engage in certain behaviors to get others to play with them.
  • Cry or whine to feel comfort or affection from loved ones.
  • The child might be behaving to elicit anger or scolding from their parent or teacher.

2 ~ Escape

On the opposite end of attention-seeking is our next function: Escape.  When a child engages in an escape behavior, the goal is to try to get away from something or avoid it altogether.  Keep in mind the item that a child is trying to escape or avoid could be a task, a tangible item, or even a person. 

Examples of Escape may include:

  • Elopement.  The child may run away if they don’t want to take a bath or complete an activity.
  • Place their head down on their desk when presented with an assignment or work.
  • Intentionally will call out, antagonize, or display inappropriate behaviors to go to the office to escape the classroom.  
  • Ripping up or destroying materials. 
  • A student is a truancy concern with tardiness or absenteeism.

3 ~ Access to Tangibles

The third function of a behavior is seeking access to tangibles or activities.  Similar to the attention function where the child is trying to gain something; however this time what they are trying to gain is an item or activity.  Behaviors in this category may be appropriate or inappropriate.  

Examples of Gaining Tangibles may include: 

  • The child is screaming and crying at a store so the adult will buy them the toy they wanted.
  • A child will push or hit another if they are playing with a toy that they want.  
  • A child completes all their chores quickly so they can go out to play. 
  • Displays a tantrum if they do not get the item that they originally wanted. 

4 ~ Sensory

Behavior may also occur when it stimulates a person’s senses – either by providing or removing sensory input. This behavior functions to give the child some kind of internal sensation that pleases them or removes an internal sensation they don’t like.

Examples of Sensory may include:

  • Self-harm or scratching themselves for a bug bite or article of clothing bothering them.  
  • Elopement or running away because they may enjoy and feel sensory stimulation from fast sports.
  • Rocking back and forth to de-stimulate their senses. 
  • Screaming or yelling to block out sensitive noises or sounds.

Where to Start?

Prioritize!

As we just discussed, very broadly, as well as your own experiences, you should be aware that problem behaviors can vary.  Have you ever heard that familiar expression of “You Should Pick Your Battles”?  Your student or child may have many behaviors that you might think are all very challenging, but if you think about them based on their severity, it might make it easier to know where your battles should be.  Janney & Snell, 2000, discusses three priorities that fit easily into a triangle.  

Third Priority: Distracting Behavior

Some of the behaviors can be very minor.  For example, the child taps their foot on the table impulsively while eating dinner.  Talks a lot, or taps their pencil on the desk while working.  These are annoying and distracting behaviors but are not very severe.  These behaviors often interfere with social acceptance, have a negative impact on their image, or damage (not destroy) materials. 

Second Priority: Disruptive Behavior

Some other behaviors can become disruptive, like ripping papers in the classroom when the teacher is trying to have class.  Distracting and may make the child stand out from other peers.  This is more than just annoying, but not yet dangerous.  These behaviors often interfere with student learning, impede social relationships, and destroys materials. 

First Priority: Destructive Behavior

Then there are behaviors that are destructive or very high priority.  Hitting others or themselves, biting self or others, throwing objects at others.  These behaviors should be at the top of your list for what is important to intervene on.  These behaviors include safety concerns and may be harmful or even life-threatening to self and or to others.

By prioritizing a student’s or child’s behavior, you can focus on where to place your efforts first.  It will make it more manageable and you are not throwing everything, but the kitchen sink into a behavior plan. It is important to note that every student and even adult may rate behaviors differently.  For example, let’s discuss non-compliance.  Non-compliance can be placed in either 2nd priority or 1st priority depending on the “big picture”.  If it is non-compliance where the child is refusing to pick up their toys, then that would be more of a 2nd priority.  However, if it is non-compliance where a child is refusing to hold your hand while crossing the street, then it becomes more of a safety concern going into the top tier or 1st priority.

Keep the student in mind while you are placing the student’s behavior into each category.  Since we at Education to the Core are all about doing the work for you, I created a great resource/graphic organizer to help you organize your thoughts!  Click here to receive your Free Prioritizing Pyramid!

The next blog post will dive into how to correctly identify the function of the behavior.  We will focus and build upon your top identified priorities of behavior.  The blog will cover why data is important and contain resources on how to easily and accurately collect and interpret your results.  

We all have our “go-to” behavior management systems or interventions that we are comfortable with and may be effective.  What are some of your behavior management resources?  Do they fit in with our “function” dialogue or have you thought about the child’s function of behavior before?  We would love to hear them in the comments below.  We will continue this conversation of behavior management and discuss in detail what you could do prior to the behavior occurring, during the behavior as well as what to do after a behavior occurs.  

Written by: Christopher Olson

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