Functions of Behavior
When an individual has difficulty communicating their wants and needs to those around them through language, they tend to use their behaviors to get the job done. In a recent interview with Metro Parent, Nicolai Kowalski, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Assistant Clinic Director at our Sterling Heights clinic, explains what these behaviors may look like as well as the reasons they’re occuring and some methods for replacing challenging behaviors with more appropriate behaviors to communicate an individual’s needs.
There are four primary functions for why a behavior may occur:
- Escape from an undesirable situation
- To gain access to an object or activity
- To gain someone’s attention
- Sensory stimulation
These functions apply not just to individuals with autism, but to everyone. When an individual’s behavior nets the desired outcome, that individual will likely continue to engage in that behavior because they have learned that it works, regardless of whether it’s a desired or undesired behavior.
Kowalski states that ABA works to identify the function behind each behavior, then teach more appropriate alternatives to replace the challenging behaviors that still help the individual meet their needs. For example, if an individual is trying to get someone’s attention, they may try tapping them on the shoulder or they may yell from across the room. Kowalski explains that by teaching the individual that tapping someone’s shoulder or using an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device is a more effective way to get someone’s attention than yelling, that individual will start using those desired methods more frequently and the yelling will occur far less. Teaching these alternative methods will also help individuals communicate their wants and needs more effectively across all environments and to a greater number of people.
An individual’s challenging behaviors can be reinforced unintentionally by parents and others by giving them what they want to stop the behaviors. By using antecedent-behavior-consequence (ABC) data to track behaviors, ABA therapists and the BCBA learn what causes the individual to engage in each behavior and which responses work the best to end each behavior. Using this information, the BCBA then works with the individual and their family to create a behavior plan to help shape the individual’s behavior.
Some behaviors are more difficult to target. Kowalski explains that self-injurious behaviors, such as self-biting and head-hitting, present extra challenges as parents will typically come to the individual’s aid immediately in order to prevent injury and give them access to the desired item or activity, or remove an undesired demand. In those situations, the goal of ABA therapy is to replace those self-injurious behaviors with safer alternatives. For instance, if the function of head-hitting is to gain access to a specific toy, teaching the individual to point to the toy and then immediately reinforcing that behavior by providing them access to it will help shape pointing as a replacement for head-hitting. Once the individual learns that pointing to their toy works as well as or better than self-injury, they will start to recognize that the new behavior also works to get them access to other items across different environments.
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