Saturday, March 25, 2023

As a behavior consultant, I get the opportunity to observe a wide variety of behaviors, both appropriate and inappropriate. The behaviors I am going to focus on here will be the challenging behaviors, as most parents and educators try to answer the question, “Why does my child/student do that?” There are different schools of thought or theories to explain behavior. I will use a behavior analytic approach. From this perspective, we acknowledge that behavior is functional, which means that behavior serves a purpose, and the child will continue to engage in this behavior as long as it appears to produce a positive outcome for him/her. This is not to say that the child is always aware of the reason why he/she behaves a certain way. Nevertheless, it serves a purpose.

The problem behaviors we are talking about can range from non-compliance to throwing tantrums, grabbing toys, throwing objects, pushing peers, spitting, pinching, biting peers etc. The first question people usually ask is “What should I do?” This cannot be answered on the spot, and there is really no one right answer. Every behavior needs to examined on an individual basis. Our main focus is not the topography of behavior, what the behavior looks like, but rather its function, why the behavior occurs.

When the teacher gives Chana math problems to complete, Chana starts saying inappropriate words, and gets sent out of the room. At the dinner table, Moshe uses inappropriate language and gets a yelling from mom. Although both behaviors may look alike, the “cause” or the “function” of the behaviors may be quite different. Therefore, focusing only on what the behavior looks like may give us little information about why the child engages in these behaviors. Identifying the underlying causes of the student’s behavior, or more specifically, what the student gets or avoids by “acting out,” will give us clues as to what our interventions should focus on.

Various factors can elicit problem behavior. The four common functions of such behavior are Escape, Attention, Tangible and Sensory.

In the escape function, a child engages in a behavior in order to avoid or escape a non-preferred or aversive situation. Imagine a child who is required to complete math problems. The task may be too challenging, and in order to avoid the embarrassment of failure, he/she may use inappropriate words, and get sent out of the room. Mission accomplished. Student has successfully escaped the task!

In the attention function as well, unruly behavior produces a desired outcome for the child. A child with minimal verbal competence sits at the dinner table with his parents and siblings. The siblings are speaking and getting lots of attention. This child is getting very little attention. How can he get the attention he wants? By misbehaving! Throwing or spilling food, or making loud noises, will arouse the attention of his parents and siblings.

In the tangible function, a child engages in certain behaviors in order to have access to a desired object. A non-verbal child may hit, push or grab a toy from a peer, as this is the most effective way he is able to get what he wants.

In the sensory regulation/sensory stimulation function, the child’s inappropriate behavior will increase or decrease the amount of sensory stimulation, resulting in an optimal level of stimulation. For example, a child may engage in rocking, flapping hands or hand mouthing in order to increase the level of stimulation or cover his eyes and ears to reduce auditory and visual stimulation.

A behavior may be maintained by a combination of different functions. Yelling in class may result in peer attention as well as escape from an aversive task. Biting one’s own hand may be maintained by the need for sensory input and the need for attention from the adults in the room.

It is therefore important to take the time and observe the challenging behaviors in the environment in which they occur. We want to collect as much information as possible about the events that influence behavior. We want to identify what occurs right before the behavior occurs (the antecedents), and what happens right after the child exhibits the behavior (the consequences). Once we discover which situations or events trigger the behavior, and what consequences maintain the behavior, we will be able to develop a hypothesis about the function(s) of behavior, and develop successful interventions. Next week we will review some effective strategies to address the different functions of behavior.

Etti Parnes, MS BCBA is a behavior consultant in the Kiryas Joel Public School in Orange County. She is the owner of Monsey Licensed Behavior Analyst Services PLLC providing ABA services in the home and in school. She is a co-instructor in the ABA Professional Development Program at Florida Institute of Technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

By Etti Parnes

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