The Functions of Behavior: Answering the “Why?”

     Why does Johnny rock violently back and forth at his desk and at recess too?  Why does Sue pinch her peers?  Why does Billy scream on his way to lunch? Why does Sally cry in the check out line at the grocery store? Behavior is simply everything that people do and the function of behavior provides us with a reason why a certain behavior is occurring.  The four most common reasons that behavior is occurring is to to gain sensory input, to gain social attention, to gain access to a tangible item or activity, and to escape or avoid something.
     Of the four underlying functions of behavior only one relies on internal pleasure as opposed to an external influence.  Some behaviors only occur in order to provide a person with some sort of internal sensation that pleases them.  Sensory stimulation explains why Johnny not only rocks at his desk when work is present but also at recess when there are no demands being placed on him.  This rocking behavior is not to gain the teachers attention or to escape desk work but to gain sensory input.
     The second function of behavior is to gain social attention or a reaction from somebody.  One student may laugh loudly during quiet time so that her classmates will giggle while another student may scream so that the teacher will look her way. Sue pinches her peers because every time she engages in this behavior her mother yells at her.  For Sue, it doesn’t matter that the reaction is bad because for some people “bad” attention is better than no attention.
     Next is escape or avoidance.  This function of behavior doesn’t seek to obtain something but to get away from something.  The lunch room is a loud place and Billy doesn’t like loud noises so he screams on his way to lunch so that his teacher will take him back to the room for silent lunch. Billy screams in order to avoid eating lunch in a loud environment.
     The last function of behavior is to gain access to a tangible item or activity.  Anybody ever buy their crying child a candy bar in the check out line at the grocery store to get them to stop causing a scene?  Every time Sally goes to the grocery store with her mom she cries.  The function of her crying is to simply obtain candy.
     There are many ways to identify why a behavior is occurring and to figure out the underlying function of that behavior.  An FBA (Functional Behavior Assessment) is a term used to describe many different assessments that allow practitioners and researchers to identify the reason behind specific behaviors.  Stay tuned to learn more about these assessments.
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