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Learning Centre

Module 3: Functions of Behaviour

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Challenging behaviours serve a function. In order to successfully decrease a challenging behaviour and replace it with a more appropriate skill, we need to understand the behaviour in question and what they are trying to communicate.

There are a number of reasons that an individual could be engaging in challenging behaviours. Perhaps it’s biological (e.g., the individual is in pain, or the behaviour produces some type of stimulation for the individual), social (e.g., the individual is bored, seeking attention or confused about a task), environmental (e.g., the individual is trying to get an item, there is something in the environment such as the lighting, or noise that is disturbing to them) or maybe the individual has no other means of communicating their wants or needs.

As mentioned earlier, challenging behaviours usually increase because they serve a function. Usually behaviours occur because a) something is being provided after the behaviour occurs (e.g., attention from someone, or a preferred item) or b) something is being removed after the behaviour occurs (e.g., a demand or task is removed, an unpleasant stimuli is removed). Also, occasionally challenging behaviours produce some type of sensory stimulation for the individual.

The most common functions of problem behaviour are:

  • Access to social attention
  • Access to items or activities
  • Escape or avoidance of a task or unpleasant stimuli
  • Sensory stimulation

Here are some examples of each:

Access to Attention
Suppose you’re on the phone when little Sarah needs to talk to you. She is tugging at your leg and screaming that she needs to talk to you. At first you ignore her, but then Sarah begins to hit her head on the floor. Worried, we immediately hang up the phone and comfort Sarah. She just accessed your attention by engaging in challenging behaviour.

Access to Items
Let’s say that Johnny is in a school or daycare and he sees other kids eating their snacks. Johnny does not have a snack, but he is very hungry. He begins to scream and hit the table. The daycare worker or teacher gets a snack for him. Johnny just accessed food for engaging in challenging behaviour.

Escape or Avoidance
Sarah is told that she needs to eat her vegetables in order to leave the table. She wants to leave the table right away and does not want to eat her vegetables so she begins to cry, scream and throw her peas. We tell her that she is to leave the table immediately and go to her room. We might think that we’re punishing Sara, but in reality, we might be actually increasing this type of inappropriate behaviour because it works for her.

Sensory Stimulation
Johnny is in his room by himself. He is sitting on the floor rocking back and forth. By doing this, he is not accessing items, activities or our attention. Also, he is not getting out of doing anything because we have not asked him to do anything. In this case Johnny might be rocking back and forth simply because it feels good to him.

Sometimes we can reduce problem behaviour simply by modifying what we are doing following the challenging behaviour. These behaviours are socially mediated (access to attention, access to items or escape or avoidance). For example, we if we know that a behaviour is occurring because the individual gets attention following the behaviour, then we would no longer give them attention following that problem behaviour. Alternatively, you would want to provide them lots of attention for desirable behaviours.

Another example would be if a child is being aggressive towards school staff in order to get out of class. Instead of letting him get out of class for hitting, we could teach him to ask appropriately for a break as an alternative to the aggressive behaviour. As mentioned above, some behaviours occur because they provide some type of sensory stimulation for the individual. These are non–socially mediated behaviours because we’re not controlling them.

We also cannot forget that it is possible that some challenging behaviours are occurring because of a medical reason. An individual may be engaging in aggression or self-injury for example, because they are in pain (e.g. face slapping because they have a tooth ache). If you suspect that there might be a medical issue going on, please ensure to consult with a physician.

In order to decrease challenging behaviour, there are two things you need to consider: the form of the target behaviour (i.e., what it looks like, sounds like, etc.) and the function of the behaviour (the reason why it is occurring or what it produces for the individual). Remember, in order to treat a challenging behaviour effectively, we need to treat it based on the function.