Sunday, December 7, 2014

What's the Function... of That Behavior?


Behavior Analysis has taught us to look for the "why's" behind behavior. We call this looking for the "function" of the behavior.

We are in a constant state of "behaving". We engage in sleeping behavior, eating behavior, running behavior, smiling behavior, driving behavior... it never stops and it always serves a purpose! Sometimes we even see behavior in ourselves and others that we would like to change. Whether it is a teenager neglecting their chores, a child biting or hitting, adults procrastinating getting work done at home, or even children, teenagers, and adults whining or raising their voices, the behavior always serves a function. A great reason for a parent to determine the "function" of a behavior (the why) is because the "function" is what maintains a behavior. If you are particularly fond of one, you'd want to do everything you could to keep it going. If you are not in favor of a behavior, you may want to figure out how to decrease it. If you determine the behavior's function, you'll be able to use that information to decide what you need to do.

Most often, the function of any behavior falls into one or several of the following categories:
Escape/Avoidance. Meaning the given behavior is exhibited in order to allow the person to escape or avoid a task, activity, or situation. E.g. The last time my daughter was supposed to have blood drawn she fought tooth and nail. She screamed, squirmed, she scratched. She told us that she didn't want to have her blood drawn. She even got very calm and said, "I want to be done, please."

Attention. Whether we like to admit it or not, research has shown that positive and even negative attention can strengthen wanted and unwanted behaviors. Very often, behaviors seen as positive or negative are functions of attention. E.g. My niece learned the ABC Song this year. My dad asked her to sing it and she did. Then he cheered and clapped. She proceeded to sing the song (spontaneously) at least 30 times that evening.

Access to preferred items/activities. I'm sure it is not surprising, many behaviors' functions are to gain access to something. We hit a button on a remote to turn the tv on. We put money into machines to get water, candy, chips, or gum, etc. My kids will clean up just about any room when their dad asks them... especially if he has offered them "quarters for cleaning" recently. They have also been known to push each other over to get the one toy that he/she can't live without.

Behavior analysts will most often take data to determine the function of a behavior in question. The best way to do this is to take "ABC" data.

A: Antecedent. Describe what happened immediately prior to the behavior and the setting. While standing at the checkout counter, a child was told "no" when he asked for gum? A man, late for work, rushed out of the house. Two children playing at home.

B: Behavior. Describe the behavior. Child crying. Man left box of cereal and cereal bowl on the counter. Child pushed and hit other child.

C: Consequence. What happened immediately following the behavior? The parent bought the child a candy. The man's wife put the box away and washed the bowl. The child that pushed and hit picked up the toy and continued to play.

Parents can sometimes avoid "taking data" and determine the function "on the fly". Look at the situation and analyze it. When the function is unknown, it's best to start keeping an ABC log. Be specific. After some time, look for patterns in your data. It should be easier to determine the "why" for the behavior in question.

My next post will be on what to do with the information you find when looking for the "functions" of behavior. In the meantime, practice a little. Look around you and see if you can find patterns in antecedents, behaviors, and consequences that lead you to determine what maintains the many behaviors around you.