What are the Functions of Problem Behavior?

Happy Monday, Houston!  I have enjoyed all of the information we have been sharing thus far!  I hope that each of you is finding it as helpful as I did when I first learned these principles.  Keep in mind, that these principles can be applied to a variety of situations with all individuals, not only those with autism.  My hope and prayer is that this information will benefit as many families as possible.  Today we are going to learn a basic, but vital principle:  what the four functions of problem behavior are.

As we have discussed previously, all behavior has a function, a reason that it is occurring.  No individual engages in an action that is not serving a purpose. although it may not always be easy to determine what the purpose is.  If a behavior occurs once, then dissipates, it can be assumed that it was an attempt to meet a specific need, however it did not receive reinforcement, thus it did not continue to occur. However, behaviors which we see continuing to occur over the course of time, we can be confident that this particular behavior is accessing reinforcement in some form.

So, what are the basic functions of behavior?  Let’s discuss them:

1.  Socially mediated positive- these are behaviors in which an individual is trying to access something externally from his environment.  There are two types of socially mediated positive.

a.  Access to Attention- Oftentimes when an individual does not feel they are accessing enough attention through appropriate behavior, they may attempt to access attention via inappropriate behaviors.  Keep in mind, that even what we may consider “bad” attention is oftentimes better than no attention.  It may not matter that they get reprimanded or corrected after the behavior- what this individual sees is that the person they wanted attention from is now giving it to them.

b.  Access to Tangible Items- If an individual is not given something they want or are asking for, they may often respond inappropriately, in an attempt to access the desired item.  In our example last week, Johnny wanted candy from the store.  Mom told him no.  Johnny began screaming and was subsequently given candy.  Mom may have given him the candy simply out of embarrassment, however, all Johnny saw was that he was given what he wanted after screaming.  So, using Johnny’s logic, what behavior will he engage in next time he wants something?

2.  Socially mediated negative- these are behaviors in which the individual is trying to escape an undesirable external situation; it will often be referred to as escape maintained behavior.

If an individual is told to do something, such as clean up and they do not wish to do so, they may engage in escape maintained behavior.  This may also occur in uncomfortable situations for the individual, such as in crowded or loud places.

3.  Automatic Positive- these are behaviors in which an individual is trying to access something internally; these are behaviors which most people refer to as self-stimulatory behaviors, or stimming.  They are things that feel good to the individual for whatever reason, thus they continue to engage in them.  These behaviors may include spinning, hand flapping, and vocal stereotypy (movie quoting or verbal jargon which is not in context to the situation).

Keep in mind that, we cannot determine that a behavior is self-stimulatory simply because of the behavior itself (e.g. hand flapping is NOT always stimming).  Remember, in Behavior Analysis we always first determine the function rather than simply looking at the topography itself.  So, an individual may engage in high rates of vocal stereotypy each time his therapist places a difficult demand on him.  At this time, the behavior is not functioning as self-stimulatory but rather escape-maintained, an attempt to escape the demand being placed.

4.  Automatic Negative- a.k.a. pain attentuation; these are behaviors in which the individual is trying to escape an undesirable internal situation.  This function is primarily a behavior that is a result of the individual suffering from a physical ailment.  In this situation, they must see medical personnel.

I always recommend looking into all physical situations prior to making a decision on the function of a behavior (e.g. have there been medication changes, are they sick, have they been taking their medication, did they get hurt, etc).  It is useless putting interventions into place if the behavior is stemming from a medical problem.

I hope that this has been helpful information!  Next time I will help walk you through the steps of determining the function of a specific behavior.  I would love any questions or comments and will respond as promptly as possible!

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