Human Behavior and Identifying Its Functions

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Behavior is what humans do, and it's observable and measurable. Whether it is to walk from one place to another or to crack one's knuckles, behavior serves some type of function.

In the research-based approach to modifying behavior, called Applied Behavior Analysis, the function of an inappropriate behavior is sought out, in order to find a replacement behavior to substitute it. Every behavior serves a function and provides a consequence or reinforcement for the behavior.

Spotting the Function of a Behavior

When one successfully identifies the function of the behavior, one can reinforce an alternate, acceptable behavior that will replace it. When a student has a particular need or function fulfilled by an alternate means, the mal-adaptive or unacceptable behavior is less likely to reappear. For example, if a child needs attention, and one gives them attention in an appropriate way because of appropriate behavior, humans tend to cement the appropriate behavior and make the inappropriate or unwanted behavior less likely to appear.

The Six Most Common Functions for Behaviors

  1. To obtain a preferred item or activity.
  2. Escape or avoidance. The behavior helps the child to escape from a setting or activity that he or she doesn't want.
  3. To get attention, either from significant adults or peers.
  4. To communicate. This is especially true with children with disabilities that limit their ability to communicate.
  5. Self-stimulation, when the behavior itself provides reinforcement.
  6. Control or power. Some students feel particularly powerless and a problematic behavior may give them a sense of power or control.

Identifying the Function

ABA uses a simple acronym, while ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) defines the three pivotal parts of behavior. The definitions are as follows:

  • Antecedent: The environment in which the behavior occurs and the circumstances that surround the occurrence of the behavior or people in the environment when the behavior occurs.
  • Behavior: The behavior, what the student actually does, that needs to be defined.
  • Consequence: Everything that happens after the behavior, including how people respond to the behavior and what happens to the rest of the student's educational program.

The clearest evidence of how a behavior functions for a child is seen in the antecedent (A) and the consequence (C.)

The Antecedent

In the antecedent, everything happens immediately before the behavior occurs. It is sometimes also referred to as "the setting event," but a setting event may be part of the antecedent and not the whole.

The teacher or ABA practitioner needs to ask if something is in the environment that may lead to the behavior, such as escaping loud noises, a person who always presents a demand or a change in routine that might seem frightening to a child. There also may be something that happens in that environment that seems to have a causal relationship, like the entrance of a pretty girl which can draw attention.

The Consequence

In ABA, the term consequence has a very specific meaning, which at the same time is broader than the use of "consequence," as it usually is, to mean "punishment." The consequence is what happens as the result of the behavior.

That consequence is usually the "reward" or "reinforcement" for the behavior. Consider consequences like the child being removed from the room or the teacher backing off and giving the child something easier or fun to do. Another consequence may include the teacher getting really angry and starting to scream. It is usually in how the consequence interacts with the antecedent that one can find the function of the behavior. 

Examples of the Pivotal Parts of Behavior

Example 1: Jeremy has been taking his clothes off in the classroom.

During a structured observation, the therapist noticed that when the time for art approaches, Jeremy gets really agitated. When the teacher announces, "Time to clean up to go to art," Jeremy will throw himself on the floor and start pulling his shirt off. It has now gotten to the point where he quickly pulls his socks and pants off, as well, so the office will call his mother to take him home.

The function here is to escape. Jeremy doesn't have to go to art class. The teachers need to figure out what it is that Jeremy wants to escape from art. The teacher may start taking his favorite toy to art and not putting any demands on him, or he/she may want to put headsets on Jeremy (the room may be too loud, or the teachers' voice may be too high pitched.)

Example 2: The moment that Hilary is given a demand after group, she begins to tantrum.

She clears her desk with a sweep, knocks it over, and throws herself to the floor. Recently she has added biting. It has taken as much as a half hour to calm her down, but after attacking the other students, the principal has been sending her home with Mom, who she has to herself for the rest of the day.

This is another function of escape, though because of the consequence, one might say it is also indirectly attention since she gets the undivided attention of Mom when she gets home. The teacher needs to work on slowly shaping the academic behavior, giving her preferred activities at her desk, and making sure there is a home note that helps Mom give Hilary extra attention, away from her typical siblings, when she has a great day.

Example 3: Carlos is a seventh grader with low functioning autism.

He has been hitting girls when he goes to lunch or gym, though not hard. They are affectionately referred to as "love pats." He occasionally hits a boy with long hair, but his focus is usually girls. He usually grins after he has done it.

Here, the function is attention. Carlos is an adolescent boy, and he wants the attention of pretty girls. He needs to learn to greet girls appropriately to get their attention.

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Webster, Jerry. "Human Behavior and Identifying Its Functions." ThoughtCo, May. 4, 2022, Webster, Jerry. (2022, May 4). Human Behavior and Identifying Its Functions. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Human Behavior and Identifying Its Functions." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2022).