Every behavior has a purpose, or function. Broadly speaking, behavior typically occurs for one of two reasons: to gain something or to get rid of something. However, when are are analyzing behavior in applied behavior analysis, or when you are analyzing your own child’s behavior, or maybe a student’s behavior as a teacher, you should be thinking of the four main functions, or reasons, a behavior occurs. The four functions of behavior are: to obtain a tangible or gain access to something, to escape or avoid a situation or aversive, to gain social attention, and for automatic or sensory reasons. Many times, a behavior serves more than one of these functions. For example, a child may whine to get their parent’s attention and also to get a toy that they want.
The first function is social attention. The learner or child will engage in behaviors that obtain attention from parents, teachers, peer, or other individuals. This attention can be positive attention such as praise or a smile, or this attention can be negative such as a reprimand or insult. These type of behaviors can initiate an interaction, act as a response to someone else, or just work to gain attention. It is very easy to inadvertently reinforce behavior that is attention-maintained.
Student: A student who continues to disrupt the class because his friends find it funny and always laugh
Child: A child intentionally spills his drink on the ground because his mom will turn towards him and tell him, “don’t do that again!”
Obtaining a Tangible or Gaining Access
The second function is tangible. The learner or child will engage in behaviors that obtain tangible items or gain access to something they want. Tangibles can include iPads, toys, balls, food, and anything else that can physically be held by the learner. Typically the items that are obtained hold reinforcing properties. As an example, think of the behaviors that a child engages in to obtain an iPad. They might ask nicely. They might kick and scream. They might become aggressive. All these behaviors share the same function.
Question: Which of the following would not be considered a tangible?
A. A toy truck B. A mother’s soothing voice C. A plate of cookies D. A new video game
Answer: B. A mother’s soothing voice
Escape or Avoid a Situation or Aversive
The third function is escape or avoidance. The learner or child will engage in behaviors to avoid the presentation of an aversive, or to escape an aversive that is already present. When you think escape or avoidance, think negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is removed and a behavior increases in the future. When behavior occurs to escape or avoid it results in a stimulus being removed from the situation. Effectively, these behaviors terminate or postpone aversive events (Cooper et al., 2007). Avoidance and escape are two different things. Understand the difference when studying for the RBT exam or the BCBA exam.
Avoidance: Preventing the presentation of an aversive stimuli. For example, running away when the teacher says, “time for quiz.”
Escape: Removing or getting away from an aversive. For example, throwing your plate of vegetables on the ground.
Automatic or Sensory Behavior
The final functional is automatic behavior or sensory behavior. The learner or child will engage in behaviors that “feel good.” In this case, something internal is maintaining the child’s behavior. Get comfortable seeing both automatic and sensory used when describing this function. The terms are used interchangeably in applied behavior analysis. One useful way of remembering automatic/sensory behavior is by thinking of the word “alone.” These behaviors occur without any social mediation. In other words, there is not another person maintaining these behaviors. Reinforcement does not depend on a second person. These behaviors are commonly referred to as self-stimulatory behaviors.
Examples include: hand-flapping, nail biting, nose picking, and chewing on a pen
How Do You Determine the Function of a Behavior?
The function of the behavior is the most important thing to identify when assessing and treating behavior. Whenever you want to identify the function of a behavior, first look at what is reinforcing the behavior. If the behavior always obtains attention, then start hypothesizing that the function may be attention. If you present a task to a student and the behavior starts at that point, you can hypothesize the behavior is occurring to escape from the demand. A more formal and precise way to assess the function of a behavior is through a functional analysis. Multiple conditions are used in a functional analyses to precisely determine the function. However, these are time consuming and resource-intensive.
Can Behaviors Have More Than One Function?
You may be wondering if behaviors are able to have more than one function. The answer is yes. In fact, many behaviors have more than one function. If crying around dinner time earns both the attention of mom and a plate of food than the function of that behavior is attention and tangible. If hiding in your closet allows you to avoid church and gain access to video games than the function of that behavior is avoidance and tangible. The most common dual function is automatic/sensory. This dual function is typically identified through a functional analysis.
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