Determining the Function of a Behavior

Welcome back to our Behavior Intervention Blog Series!  Life as a working mom got the best of me, so it has been a while since my last blog.  I am excited to get back to it!  Last time we learned the four basic functions of a problem behavior.  Today we will learn the process of determining the function of a behavior.

As a reminder from our last blog, the basic functions of problem behavior are:

  1.  Socially Mediated Positive (access to attention or a tangible item)
  2. Socially Mediated Negative (escape from a demand or situation)
  3. Automatic Positive (self-stimulatory behavior)
  4. Automatic Negative (pain attenuation)

It is important to know what the functions of behavior can be.  However, the next step is learning to determine what the function of a specific behavior is.  If you recall a few posts ago, I discussed Sally, our speech therapist, who was addressing the behavior of hitting the same way for two different clients.  Her time out procedure decreased the behavior in one client but increased the behavior in another client.  We can to learn this occurred because the FUNCTION of the behavior in each client was different. As such, it is vital that we as professionals, parents, and caregivers learn how to quickly determine the function of a behavior in order to appropriately respond to the behavior.  Responding appropriately the first few times the behavior occurs will prevent it from accessing reinforcement, thus making it less likely for the behavior to continue occurring.

The best way to determine the function of a problem behavior as it is occurring is to look at the antecedent.  If you recall our post entitled “Why Am I seeing This Behavior in My Child”, we discussed the ABCs of ABA- Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence.  In order to determine the function of a behavior as it is occurring, we need to look at the antecedent.  What occurred prior to the problem behavior?  That will indicate to us why the behavior is occurring.  Below I have given indications that may cue us to what the function of the behavior is:

Access to Attention:

Problem behaviors often occur in order to access attention, either from anyone, or from a specific individual.  It is important to remember that ANY attention (good or bad) is still attention.

Signs that the problem behavior may be caused by Access to Attention:

  1. Child has recently had an individual’s attention but it was removed prior to the occurrence of the behavior.
  2. Child is in a situation in which he/she is not receiving attention (e.g. mom is on the phone, therapist is writing data).
  3. Another individual is being given attention (e.g. teacher is attending to another student).
  4. While engaging in the problem behavior, the child looks to make sure someone is watching (looks at the adult in the room to be sure they are watching).
  5. If attention is given, the behavior stops, but then resumes when attention is subsequently removed.

Access to Tangible Item

Problem behaviors often occur because the child has either been denied access to an item or has had a desired item removed from them.

Signs that the problem behavior may be caused by Access to a Tangible Item:

  1. The child has requested for an item by pointing, gesturing, signing, or verbally manding for the item and been denied access, told to wait, or any another response other than IMMEDIATE delivery of the desired item.  (oftentimes our children do not understand what the word “wait” means, so when we tell them to wait, they feel they are being denied access  to the item).
  2. The child has been playing with an item and another individual takes it away, or indicates they are about to remove it.
  3. The item suddenly stops working (e.g. the ipad dies while the child is playing on it).
  4. Child is reaching for the desired object while engaging in the target behavior.


Another primary reason that problem behaviors occur, is in order to escape demands being placed.  Signs that problem behavior is occurring due to escape:

  1. Occurs immediately following being told to do something (e.g. “Come here”, “sit down”, “What do you see?”)
  2. Occurs following implied demands (social situations, situations in which demands commonly occur).
  3. Statements which parents often do not consider a demand, are often conceived as demands by the child (e.g. “come here”, “Let’s go eat dinner”, “come wash your hands”).  Oftentimes we as parents do not recognize how many demands we are placing on our child.  “Come Here” may be perceived as a demand because you are standing near the child’s work area, so they perceive that they are going to have to do work.
  4. Occurs during an aversive setting or situation (loud or crowded store, overwhelming sensory situation, etc).

Self- Stimulation

There are occasions in which problem behaviors occur in order to self-engage or self-stimulate.  Signs that a problem behavior may be occurring due to Self-Stimulation:

  1. Occurs whether or not others are in the child’s presence.
  2. Occurs whether or not the child is receiving attention.
  3. Occurs whether or not a demand has been placed on the child.
  4. The child appears unaware of the presence of others, while engaging in the problem behavior.

Pain Attenuation

Problem behaviors can occur if a child is in physical pain.  Always make sure there are no physical ailments, such as an upset stomach or sinus infection.  Make sure the child has regular checkups and routinely takes all of his medication, so that physical distress can be ruled out.  As a professional, I always ask questions to rule this out prior to implementing a behavior plan.  I always ask if the child has begun any new medications, has he been sleeping well, has his eating changed, etc.  It is important to be aware of physical problems the child is having.  That being said, be careful not to reinforce problem behaviors because the child is ill.  Oftentimes behaviors are reinforced during times the child is ill, subsequently causing a new behavior in his repertoire that he will utilize once he is well.

The first step in determining the appropriate response to a behavior is determining the function of the behavior.  I always give this advice to parents, teachers, and caregivers:  It is better to take 15-20 seconds to analyze the antecedent, determine why the behavior is occurring, and respond appropriately, than to react immediately without analyzing the behavior, and potentially reinforcing the problem behavior.  Take the time you need to figure out why the behavior is occurring.  If you would like some practice at this, I have several example situations that I can send you, in which you read a situation and write down the function of the behavior.  Send me a message and I’d be happy to email that to you and review it once you have completed it.  Practice as much as you can, so it becomes second nature.

In our next blog, we will learn how to respond to the problem behavior once the function is determined.

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