All behavior serves a purpose and when we refer to the “function” of behavior, we are really talking about the reason behind why the child is engaging in a particular behavior. It is important to know why the child is engaging in a certain behavior because it gives us better understanding as to how to appropriately respond to it.
The functions of behavior fall into four different categories: Attention, Escape, Tangible, and Sensory.
Attention-seeking behaviors are when a child engages in a behavior in an attempt to get adult or peers/siblings’ attention. It’s important to remember that attention can be both positive and negative and any attention is good attention in a child’s eyes. An example of attention seeking behavior is when a child cries and whines whenever you hang up the phone. When you hang up quickly to go back to playing with the child or even, perhaps, yell, “Stop it! I’m on the phone,” the child learns that all they need to do is whine or cry in order to gain your attention.
If you notice that your child is engaging in attention seeking behaviors, you can try one of the following techniques:
- Teach alternative ways to get your attention (e.g., say excuse me, raise your hand, tap me on the shoulder). Subsequently, praise your child every time they are able to use the more appropriate strategy!
- Remember to ignore the undesired behaviors (e.g., don’t give attention to the problem behavior, but rather provide a ton of praise and attention for the behaviors that you DO want to see).
- Provide one-on-one attention for at least 5 minutes a day. This way, your child has a predictable and reliable dose of your attention.
Escape behaviors are when a child engages in a behavior in an attempt to avoid a non-preferred task, demand, or interaction. This might look like a child who throws a tantrum when you ask them to brush their teeth because they want to get out of brushing their teeth. Similarly, it might look like a student who complains of a stomach ache as soon as the teacher passes out their math test, in hopes of getting sent to the nurse and avoiding the undesired task.
Some helpful strategies when the function of behavior is escape are:
- Decrease task difficulty (e.g., divide the task into smaller parts or alter the task length).
- Increase access to reinforcers for doing the task that the child perceives as difficult.
- Ensure your child can do what you are asking or give help when needed.
- Teach your child appropriate ways to ask for a break or let you know they need help.
- Use “First-Then” or “when-then” prompts (e.g., when you do this worksheet, then you can take a break).
- Provide choices when appropriate (e.g., you have to get ready for school- do you want to brush your teeth first or eat breakfast first?).
Tangibles are when a child engages in a behavior because they want access to a preferred item or activity. For example, a child may throw a tantrum to get a chocolate bar at the supermarket and then will stop screaming as soon as you hand them the candy.
When a child is engaging in a behavior to gain access to tangibles you can:
- Teach and practice more appropriate ways to ask for the item.
- Provide the child with a lot of praise for accepting ‘no’ calmly.
- Offer choices: If your child cannot have that item they are wanting, give them other options which they can have.
- For example, if your child wants cookies, you can respond with, “You can have a cracker or a strawberry.”
- Provide transition warnings (e.g., 5 more minutes left to play!)
- Let your child know when they can have the preferred item (e.g., it’s time for dinner now, you can have the iPad after you get ready for bed) or let them know how they can earn it.
Sensory: A child engages in a behavior because it simply feels good or is self-stimulating. This behavior functions to either give the child an internal sensation that is pleasing or removes an internal sensation they dislike. Examples of sensory seeking behaviors include scratching an itch or rocking to self-soothe.
Some strategies you can use when the behavior is sensory seeking include:
- Redirecting inappropriate behaviors (i.e., try to engage your child in something that has the same sensory input, but is more appropriate).
- Teaching an appropriate or more socially acceptable time/place to engage in the behavior (e.g., it’s not appropriate to run around during math class but you can take a movement break in the hallway).