What Are The 4 Strong Functions of Behavior?

Behavior was a big component of my job in the classroom. Figuring out the functions of behavior is such an expansive topic but this blog will serve as a jumping point! When we have behavior occurring that isn’t responding to tier one and tier two interventions, we might need to take a step further. The rest of this blog will be focused on tips for intervening on the most intensive behaviors and identifying the functions of behavior.

All Behavior Serves a Function – What Are The Functions of Behaviors?

When we look at behavior, it is important to remember that all behavior serves a function. Students don’t demonstrate target behaviors for “no reason”. If you don’t determine the functions of behavior, you won’t be able to intervene on the behavior 

There are four functions of behavior: Attention, Escape, Access to Tangibles, and Sensory. A common acronym is SEAT. What this means is all behavior is serving a function. They might be trying to gain attention from adults or peers, they might be trying to escape/avoid a setting or activity, they might be trying to gain access to a tangible or the behavior might be rooted in a sensory need.

But I already know why he is doing it!

I want to really emphasize this-you NEED to figure out the functions of behavior. I totally fell into the trap of “I know why he is doing that”. Let me show you what can happen when you don’t actually find out the function of behavior.

Let’s look at this scenario. Let’s say you have a student who demonstrates undesirable behaviors whenever he comes to writers’ workshops. On the surface, you assume that writing is a difficult task and he is engaging in avoidance behavior. You dive right into offering choices, getting adaptive technology, working with the occupational therapist and layering supports. When the student demonstrates the target behavior, you run over ready to intervene.

But what is the function of behavior? Wasn’t task avoidance? What if it was actually attention seeking? If the behavior is attention-seeking, and every time the student demonstrated the target behavior you gave attention, he is learning that is an effective way to get your attention and you are accidentally reinforcing the behavior.

How do I determine functions of behavior?

You might be wondering how to determine the functions of behavior. The easiest way I have found to determine functions of behavior is using an ABC data sheet! ABC stands for antecedent, behavior, consequence. To clarify, consequence is not negative. Consequence is just whatever occurs after the behavior. Let’s apply this to an example.

Every day, when I collect my bag and my keys, my dog Buster walks to his treat jar to indicate that he wants a treat. The antecedent is me getting ready for work. The behavior is Buster asking for treat. The consequence is whatever I do next. If I say not today and tell him he is a good boy, that’s a consequence. If I give him a treat, that’s a consequence. 

Sometimes we find that our consequences might be maintaining (or increasing) the behavior. Going back to the Buster example, my consequence does maintain his behavior. I always give him a treat, and when I give him a treat I’ve taught him to keep asking for treats. When we take ABC data we can see all of the consequences and see if any are maintaining the behavior.

What do functions of behavior look like?

Let’s look at some of the possible functions and what it might look like. It is still important to take that ABC data, but this will help you know what to look for when analyzing the data.

If we see that a student yells, blurts out or says extreme things and it appears that they are trying to get a reactions from peers, or if we see a student elope and it appears that they are trying to to get a staff member to run after them, the function of behavior might be attention.

If we see that a student throws their work times, rips up worksheets, runs and hides in the part of the classroom or screams and cries during a lesson, the function of behavior might be escape or avoidance.

If we see that the student is engaging in behavior to gain access to an item, and as soon as they gain access to that item the behavior stops, the function of behavior might be access to tangibles or activities.

If the student is vocal to drain out a loud noise, rocks as a way to self soothe or flaps hands as self-stimulatory behavior, the function of the behavior might be sensory seeking.

When you go through the data, if you notice every time a staff member spoke to the student the behavior continued or escalated, and every time a staff member used planned ignoring the behavior deescalated or stopped, the behavior might be attention maintain. Once you have the function determined, you can work through the process of an FBA (functional behavior assessment, taking the data is part of this) and move into a BIP (Behavior Intervention Plan) if necessary.

Once I determine the functions of behavior, what’s next?

Antecedent based interventions (ABI) are a great tool when it is time to come up with an alternative to the behavior. An ABI works proactively to help the student before the target behavior occurs. Please note, the ABI needs to be tailored and customized to meet the specific need of your student. The next section is not a cut and paste solution-it is just meant to help you determine some possible ABIs that can be used.

If the behavior is escape or avoidance, things to try include adjusting the difficulty of the task, offering choice, modify instructional delivery and increase predictability. In other words, you might try and decrease the number of problems that need to be completed, allow the student to select between two tasks to complete, use visual supports to pair with instruction or provide visual cues ahead of the time to indicate an upcoming change in the schedule.

If the behavior is attention seeking, you might try using scheduled attention, close proximity or a DRO (Differential Reinforcement Procedure of other behavior). In other words, you might have a structured plan to give students attention, you might change your seating arrangement so the student can be closer to you or you might heavily reinforce any behavior that is not attention seeking as a way to encourage the acceptable behavior.

If the behavior is to gain access to a tangible, you might try increased accessibility, use of a token board or transition items. In other words, you allow the student more access to the preferred item, set up a way for the student to earn access to the preferred item, or use the preferred item between highly non-preferred activities.

If the behavior is to gain sensory reinforcement you might enrich the environment or provide an alternative. In other words, you might see how you can shift your classroom layout and decor to be more satisfying to sensory seekers or you might find a more appropriate way for students to gain that same sensory input.

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