Understanding Functions of Behavior

“Why does my child do that?”

For parents of a child with autism, this frequent question can have important implications. Behavior is never just about the behavior. Although it’s tempting to focus on how your child’s behavior manifests, it’s critical to look deeper and understand the reasons why the behavior exists. Understanding those reasons is the first step in understanding how to change that behavior and produce the results you seek.

Fortunately, there is a framework for identifying the purpose behind your child’s behavior so we can develop the right approach.

What Are “Functions of Behavior”?

Functions of behavior are simply the reasons why a person does something. We generally assign observable behavior into three categories:

1. Escape/Avoid (Negative Reinforcement): The child seeks to escape or avoid something negative. For example, the child acts out at dinner time because she doesn’t want to have to sit still at the table.
2. Obtain (Positive Reinforcement): The child does something because she wants something. The classic example is a child melting down in a grocery story because she wants candy.
3. Internal (Automatic Reinforcement): In this case, an internal factor for the child reinforces a particular behavior. Repetitive self-stimulation, or “stimming,” is a common example. This behavior poses the biggest challenges, because it’s often difficult to measure or assess the causes behind the behavior.

How Do You Identify a Child’s Function of Behavior?

Sometimes, the purpose behind a behavior is relatively obvious. Other times, it may be difficult to tell whether a child is trying to avoid or obtain something. In these cases, the particular cause of a behavior may have nothing to do with how the behavior appears on the surface.

And just to complicate things, the purpose of the behavior may change as well; something that starts out as escape may switch as the child realizes the behavior may help him obtain your full attention, which he desires.

The key to determining the difference lies in what happens when you take the child’s demand away.

For example, let’s say that every night problems arise at homework time. What happens if tonight you say, “No homework!”? If there are no problems tonight, then we know the problems are caused by your child trying to avoid homework. However, if you still have problems tonight, then we know there’s something else going on. Perhaps, when your child struggles with homework, you come and sit down with him. Your child wants your attention, so he quickly learns to put up a fuss every time he does homework.

On the surface, the problem appeared to be about avoidance, but in reality, it was about obtaining attention.  In this case, continuing to try to coax the child to do his homework may actually make the situation worse.  For example, if the child was trying to get out of doing homework by having a tantrum, a time-out may further increase tantrum behavior.

Understanding the causes behind the behavior allows you to proactively transform a situation before a negative behavior arises, so you can reinforce the positive behavior you desire. (Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts in which we discuss specific strategies for each function of behavior!)

The Challenges with “Stimming”

Stimming behavior can be difficult to understand because the motivation behind the behavior is internal and not always observable. The real question, therefore, is whether the stimming behavior poses a problem.

For example, many children with autism hum to themselves. This doesn’t necessarily pose a problem – unless the child hums during instruction, in which case the humming prevents the child from hearing what the instructor says. Therefore, in that circumstance, we would intervene.

Arm flapping is another common issue. But intervention is only needed if the behavior is posing a problem, such as being socially stigmatizing.

Similarly, head banging may pose a safety concern and therefore also warrant intervention.

At the end of the day, the choice to intervene lies with you, the parent. As you seek to change an undesired behavior, stop first to understand the reasons behind the behavior. By leveraging the child’s own motivation, you’ll build much more momentum and see far greater results.

Curious to learn more about the motivations behind your child’s behavior? Contact us today for an assessment.


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