ABA Therapy and Behavior Functions

A Quick Guide for Parents

Like other sciences, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has unique terminology that becomes second nature for professionals in the field. But for everyone else, it can sound like a foreign language.

So, for all the wonderful parents out there who are new to ABA therapy or just want a refresher, this article explains the term ‘Behavior Functions’ and why it’s important to identify them when treating children with autism and other developmental concerns.

What Behavior Functions Are

Behavior Functions, also known as Functions of Behavior, is a fancy way of referring to the reasons why a specific behavior occurs. Once it’s determined why a behavior occurs, an ABA therapist can work on redirecting the behavior or use therapy to replace the behavior with one that is more desired.

Four Categories of Behavior Functions

There are four categories of Behavior Functions (or reasons that behaviors occur): Sensory, Escape, Attention, and Tangible. You might hear these categories referred to by the acronym SEAT. (We love acronyms in the field of ABA therapy.)

  • Sensory (or Automatic Reinforcement): This is when a child wants access to stimulation or to avoid pain. Hand flapping and repetitive motions, like twirling toys and pen tapping, are examples of behaviors with a sensory function. Generally, behaviors with a sensory function don’t require access to or assistance from others.
  • Escape (or Avoidance): This is when a child wants to avoid or delay a non-preferred task. With escape or avoidant-related behaviors, you might see your child walking or turning away from you. They could also give you a verbal refusal or display any behavior that will help them get out of, avoid, or delay a task they don’t want to do.
  • Attention: This is when a child wants attention from others. Behaviors (good and not so good) with attention functions are any behaviors that are meant to get your attention, including crying, screaming, throwing or hitting something, and even saying ‘excuse me.’
  • Tangible: This is when a child wants access to preferred reinforcers also known as rewards. Behaviors with tangible functions are any behaviors from a child who wants access to their favorite things, like toys, food, or electronics.

Methods for Identifying Behavior Functions

There are different methods for identifying behavior functions. One simple way is to interview a child’s parents. Interviews can help direct your behavior analyst to look for a potential behavior function.

We also use the ABC method. (Another acronym!) This method involves the review of a single instance of a behavior, paying attention to the Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequences that maintain the behavior. Here’s what all that means:

  • Antecedent – An antecedent is what happens right before a behavior. For example, your child hasn’t had a cookie in a while.
  • Behavior – The behavior is what happens because of the antecedent. For example: Your child asks you for a cookie.
  • Consequence – The consequence is what happens directly after a behavior. For example, you give your child a cookie.

If cookies are reinforcing or rewarding to your child, they may reinforce the future likelihood that they’ll ask for one again. We can conclude, then, that the behavior of asking for cookies is maintained by giving the child access to tangibles. In other words, the behavior has a tangible function.

The scenario above is a simple example of determining potential behavior function for the purpose of teaching. Behavior in general can be a lot more complicated and require closer examination through a complete functional behavior assessment and data analysis over time. You can practice the ABC model at home to see if you can start identifying potential behavioral functions!

If you’d like to have a functional behavior assessment completed for your child, The Behavior Exchange can help! Call 972.312.8733 or email us for more information.

P.S. Look for Watson’s Word of the Day posts on Facebook and Twitter to learn more ABA therapy terms!

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