The 4 Basic Functions of Behavior

The other day, I was talking on the phone to my roommate. “This kid just will not stop doing _______,” I whine. I sigh, frustrated, that it should just stop. “They won’t listen,” I appeal to her empathy, hoping that she’ll just hear me out and commiserate with me. Instead, without fail, she asks, “What is the function of the behavior?”

My roommate is an ABA therapist; she trains other therapists on how to deal with behaviors exhibited by children with autism and other related disorders. Although her knowledge base is specific to autism, there are a few things I’ve learned from her that are invaluable to my understanding of classroom management. Her question appeals to my desire to actually FIX the problem and not just moan about it. I want to understand WHY they aren’t listening or WHY something isn’t working. This question forces me to realize why I might need to reevaluate my behavior plan.

“What is the function of the behavior?”

Now, I aim for my default to be, “What is the function of the behavior?”.

There are four functions of behaviors:

  1. Attention – A student is seeking attention from the adult or his/her peers
  2. Tangibles – A student is seeking something that’s currently withheld: food, ipad/device, toy, etc.
  3. Escape – A student wants to get out of/avoid the situation
  4. Automatic – A student has developed a habit surrounding this behavior

I bet you can think of examples of behaviors for each of these, but I’ll list a few:

  1. Attention: calling out, inappropriate jokes/timing of jokes, touching students, asking excessive questions of the teacher, dominating a discussion, side conversations
  2. Tangibles: sneaking phone use, sneaking food/snacks, taking a preferred tool from a student or manipulating him/her in order to receive it
  3. Escape: going to the bathroom or clinic more often than necessary, walking around the classroom in a circuitous route to avoid sitting down, not bringing work in order to avoid participating in a discussion/class activity, taking a break when it’s not necessary or during a difficult task
  4. Automatic: blurting out (might have become a habit), pen tapping/kicking feet/other mildly annoying habit, not writing their name on their paper

If the behavior that you are noticing doesn’t fit into one of these categories, then perhaps it’s not actually a disruptive behavior. It may just be a preference that you have. It’s also possible for the same behavior to serve different functions. For instance, if a student is doodling instead of taking notes, it could be categorized as automatic, but it may be a habit that works for the student. If the point of doodling is to escape taking notes, that’s different. If the point of doodling is to get commentary from their friend next to them and show each other drawings throughout class, that’s different again. The point to asking the question, “What is the function of the behavior?” is finding out the WHY behind the WHAT.

When you know the function of the behavior, you can change the way you address the problem. So how do you know the function? And what do you do about it?

That’s what I’ll be addressing in my upcoming posts.


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