From a clinical standpoint, behavior is classified in terms of its function. A behavioral function can also be considered the “why” of a behavior. When a behavior is observed, a behavior analyst or technician will look at the behavior with what occurred immediately before and after. This helps us identify a pattern and therefore, a function. Looking at the antecedent (what happened before the behavior) and the consequence (what happened after the behavior), the analyst or technician will then make a hypothesis regarding the function of the behavior. We call this an ABC analysis and it’s a tried and true method that can easily be replicated by parents.
The 4 functions of behavior include sensory (or automatic) escape, attention, and access to tangibles. A good way to remember this is the acronym S.E.A.T.
When the function of a behavior is escape, the child may be engaging in a particular behavior to escape a demand or a variety of non-preferred situations. When a child engages in behavior for the function of attention, they are seeking the attention of others to reinforce their behavior. This attention could be positive or negative attention. When a child engages in behavior for the function of access, they are wanting to gain access to an item, a location, a person, or any other environmental stimulus. Finally, a child could engage in behavior within the function of automatic reinforcement. Automatic reinforcement can also be known as sensory, as the behavior is taking place to fulfill a sensory need. Automatically reinforcing behaviors are just how they sound, they automatically produce reinforcement for the child, typically in the form of sensory input or stimulation. Oftentimes, some or all of these functions can work together to maintain a behavior. I child might behave to escape a demand in order to access a desired tangible item or activity.
Why is it important that we consider and hypothesize the function of a child’s behavior?
Figuring out the function of the behavior guides interventions for responding to the behavior. For example, if a child engaged in protesting behavior to gain access to a cookie, the technician may prompt communication to gain access to the cookie rather than granting access by protesting for it. Similarly, if a child was engaging in maladaptive behavior within the function of escape, the therapist may require completion of part of the demand before allowing the child to engage in other activities.
The functions of behavior guide interventionists and technicians to respond to behaviors appropriately to shape them into more functional responses and behaviors. Analysts may ask questions to parents or other stakeholders to gather anecdotal data on potential functions of behavior.
When identifying functions of behaviors and responding accordingly, it’s important to always remember that behavior is communication. Respecting human dignity and bodily autonomy should always take precedence in any intervention or protocol.