Functions of Behavior

11 Feb

If you’ve conducted an ABC analysis (see last post) the next step is determining why the child is doing the unwanted behavior, or what is the function of that behavior.

Behaviors have 4 basic functions:

1. Access to a tangible: The behavior gets the child a desired toy or item.  A child screams at the toy store because they want a toy off the shelf.

2. Sensory: The behavior feels good, it satisfies some sensory need.  A child puts her fingers in her ears because it makes everything sound funny.

3. Attention: The behavior gets either positive or negative attention from someone.  A child argues with a parent because it gets them verbal attention from that parent.

4. Escape: The behavior allows the child to escape an aversive demand, activity, task.  A child cries before bedtime so he can stay up later.

The goal for a parent is to figure out what the function of an unwanted behavior is.  Sometimes the function is obvious, but sometimes it takes careful observation and an open mind to discover what the true function is.  A behavior may serve multiple functions, but it usually started with one primary function, and that should be your target.   


Once you’ve determined the function to the next step is to make that behavior inefficient and ineffective.  In other words, don’t let that behavior work for the child anymore.  If a child cries to escape bedtime, don’t allow the child to escape bedtime if he cries.  With most behaviors, an alternate behavior needs to be taught.  The child needs to learn the appropriate way to meet their wants and needs.  With young children, this usually means teaching a communication skill so the child can effectively ask for what they want without engaging in inappropriate behaviors.  Other times it involves some creativity from a parent.

Take the bedtime example: 

Mom tells her child it’s bedtime.  The child cries.  Mom allows the child to stay up later to avoid hearing anymore crying.  What needs to happen first is Mom must stop allowing her child to escape bedtime by crying.  It may take a couple of nights and a strong will, but eventually the child will realize it’s not working, and stop.  When he goes to bed that first night without crying, make sure to praise him or reward him with something.  If you want to teach him how to ask for a bedtime extension the right way, there are several creative solutions, but one could be to create a chart of activities you would like him to do.  He can earn extra minutes of bedtime by completing chores, playing with his sibling, anything you’d like him to do more of.  Make sure he can’t earn a ridiculous amount of time, but also make sure it will be worth his effort. 

Determining the function of a behavior is essential in discovering WHY a child is doing what they are doing.  Once you know the function, you can intervene and STOP or reduce that behavior. Overall, praise or reinforce good behavior, and ensure that bad behavior isn’t getting your child what they want.  Teaching new skills will help your child function better in life.



11 Feb

ABC is another acronym standing for Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence.  This is a good way of taking data to discover the function of a behavior.  It is simple enough that parents can implement it at home.  As a therapist, I use ABC data daily. Of course, therapists make ABC analyses complicated, but I am going to attempt to explain it so that any parent can use it to figure out the function of a behavior.  The first step in an ABC analysis is to get ABC data.  ABC data can be compared to a journal or diary about a behavior.  It reminds me of an impressionist painting.  In the beginning, it seems to be just insignificant brush strokes, but when you look at the bigger picture all the minor details fit together and make sense.  Parents should start by targeting one behavior that they believe is impacting the quality of their family’s life. Does your child refuse to do his homework?  Is bedtime or bath time a battle?  Does he throw his toys?  When picking a target behavior, remember you are trying to discover WHY this behavior is happening, so pick a behavior that holds some importance to you.  You need accurate data, so you’re limited to behaviors that occur in your presence.  After picking your target behavior, it’s time for data!  ABC components are recorded on a behavior data sheet.  You can easily make one of these at home or search for a free template on the internet.


Antecedent: What happens directly before the behavior.

  •   This is often (in a simple analysis) what is triggering the behavior.
  •  To add more detail, some analysts will record the location, time, etc. to cover all their bases.  To illustrate the power of details, here’s an example: I have sat down to analyze ABC after a week and discovered that the behavior occurred around the same time of day.  The child was on a medication that lasted 6 hours and was wearing off when the class had their afternoon snack at 4:00.  The medicine wearing off was causing him to refuse to eat his afternoon snack.  It was that simple, it just took tracking it to make it clear.

Behavior: The behavior that the parent wishes to target.

  • When you began taking data on a target behavior, it is important to record exactly what the behavior looked like, the intensity of it, and how many times it occurred.  For example, it’s not enough to just record ‘he screamed’.  Did he cry and scream?  Did he flop on the floor when screaming?  How many times did he scream?  Was it loud or moderate?  Recording the specifics will help you understand the behavior better.
  • When the behavior occurs, make sure to be natural in your response.  This is not an intervention; it’s an observation.

Consequence: What happens directly after the behavior.

  • How did you or those around you handle the behavior?  Were there any natural consequences?
  • Many times the consequence that the child receives may be maintaining the behavior.

Here is an example of an ABC analysis:

Karen wants to figure out why her daughter Suzy constantly interrupts adults when they are talking.  A common incident of interrupting usually goes like this:

Karen is in a conversation with another mother when Suzy approaches them.  Suzy begins by pulling on Karen’s shirt.  Karen ignores her.  Suzy then says “Mom” and Karen replies, “Hold on a minute”.  Suzy repeats “Mom” in a more high-pitched voice.  Karen tells Suzy, “I’m talking to someone.”  Suzy screams “MOM!” and Karen replies angrily, “What Suzy?  What is it?”  Suzy tells Karen she can’t find her favorite toy.

Let’s identify the behavior first.  The behavior is Suzy interrupting her mom while she is talking.  In this example it occurred 4 times and the intensity could be considered moderate.  Obviously, intensity will be more accurate when you have prior knowledge of a behavior.  The antecedent is Karen being in a conversation with another adult. Sometimes, an antecedent may not be as cut and dry as my example.  Behaviors may seem like they occur for no reason.  This is why it is important to be consistent when taking data.  Something that may seem minor could jump out as an obvious antecedent after it occurs several times.  The consequence, in this example, is maintaining the behavior.   The consequence is Karen addressing her daughter.  If I did an analysis on this hypothetical data, I would probably determine that the function of the interrupting is attention.  Suzy wants her mother’s attention and in order to direct her mom’s attention to her, she interrupts her mom’s conversations.  Even though Karen is giving Suzy negative attention, not positive attention, Suzy is still getting the desired attention from her Mom.

When you are doing ABC analyses it can take a week or so of recording data before a pattern like I just described may emerge.  Be persistent and take data for at least a week, depending on how often the behavior occurs.  Have others who you trust look at the data.  A fresh set of eyes is helpful.  Even if you still have trouble analyzing the data, continue taking data!  This kind of data can be very enlightening to parents. Also, if you decide to seek professional advice it may be useful.

* PLEASE note that this post is simplified for parents of neurotypical children.  Many children with developmental disorders, such as ASD, have more serious problem behaviors that need serious attention.  This is NOT intended to be used for more serious behaviors (i.e.:  intense aggression, self injurious behavior, refusal to eat).  For any serious behaviors exhibited by your child it is always best to seek professional help, and in my opinion, a BCBA who can properly analyze and intervene.

#1 Parenting Mistake: Giving In

11 Feb

Now that the basics of ABA has been explained away quite awhile ago…

From watching the parents I train, and Supernanny, the biggest mistake parents make is giving in to kids’ demands.  We all know the example of the parent who buys her screaming child in Walmart a candy bar to shut them up.  Many times parents don’t realize how often they are letting their child run their life.  They also don’t realize how damaging it can be. When parents gives into a child’s demand, and here’s the clincher, AFTER ALREADY SAYING “NO”, they have just taught their child that their word, especially the word “No”, means zilch.  In behavioral terms, you’re reinforcing a bad behavior, which means that behavior is going to increase.  Your child has learned that if he cries hard enough, screams loud enough, Mom or Dad will eventually cave.  The further you delay giving in, the worse situation you have created.  Think about it.  If crying and screaming worked after 2 minutes, the next time if 2 minutes of that same behavior doesn’t work, they are probably going to try 5 minutes of crying and screaming.  Basically, they are going to continue until you give in, because its worked for them in the past.  How do you, as a parent, combat this and teach your child to accept “No”?Image

First off, here’s two ways to prevent ever having to give in to a demand once you’ve said “No”

  1. Prevent it by picking your battles: The Walmart example for instance.  If you know your little one is going to get upset, and you know will cave if he does, say “Yes”, buy the candy bar.  Better to say yes right away than say yes later. This method is very helpful in public places or in circumstances where what the child is asking for doesn’t matter to much to you. Learning to pick your battles is so important.  It helps you totally avoid giving in, because you never said “No” in the first place. 
  2. Prevent is by using antecedent control: Antecedent is whatever occurs directly before the behavior (ABA terms).  Again with the Walmart example, if you don’t want to buy a candy bar and you know your child will ask for one, don’t go to an aisle where candy is available.  As a parent, you can alter the environment so the request never occurs in the first place.

Here’s some tips to keep your sanity and NOT GIVE IN once you have said “No” to a kid’s request

  1. Redirect: If they are young this usually works.  Offer them a toy, activity, snack, something to get their mind off of what they can’t have.  Kids have short attention spans.  Do this even if they are upset, your not reinforcing any bad behavior because they technically aren’t getting what they want.
  2. Give choices: My phrase for teaching a young child how to accept “No” is, “You can’t have ____ but you can have ____ or, ______, or ______”.  This gives the child a sense of control and is another tool of distraction.
  3. Shut yourself off: If the child is unable to be redirected and is starting to go into tantrum mode, state to your child calmly that you have told them “No”, and go about your business.  Do not keep repeating yourself and engaging your child in an argument, you’re only fueling the fire.  Ignore any bad behavior and praise the child when he either redirects himself or calms down enough to be comforted.

Most importantly, when you are teaching a child to accept “No”, you must be calm, cool, collected.  Any screaming or tension from you will result in screaming and tension from your child.  If a child is young (less than 5) avoid reasoning with him.  They don’t have these skills yet, they just know they are not getting what they want.  Also, a teachable moment is not when a kid is upset.  If you want to discuss why you refused your child what they wanted, wait until your child has totally calmed down and moved on.

What if you’ve been giving in to your child for a long time?

You’re screwed!

Just kidding, but it will be harder and take longer to fix.  Just being honest.

You have to make up your mind that you will no longer give in to your child’s demands just to avoid a tantrum or scene.  Then you have to convince everyone else, like your spouse, to do the same.  Last, you pick your battles, and stick to your guns if you’ve said “No”.  The child’s reaction will be difficult on parents at first.  They will go through what behavior analysts call an extinction burst.  Basically, this means the screaming and crying will get worse before it gets better.  Like I explained before, if 2 minutes of screaming and crying doesn’t work, the child is going keep trying, keep pushing.  This may occur several times before the behavior decreases.  As a parent, you MUST wait out the extinction burst.  If you give in at the height of an extinction burst, you have just highly reinforced that bad behavior, and your starting back at square one.  Many parents make this mistake because they complain that they just couldn’t take it anymore.  I promise, if you hang in there, the behavior will decrease.  Eventually, screaming and crying is no longer going to work, so why exert the futile effort?  If you are redirecting the child or offering them choices, you are teaching them skills to cope with disappoint.  You are teaching them how to accept “No”!

ABA Explained

15 Mar


ABA is an acronym standing for Applied Behavior Analysis.  A good way to began to understand ABA is through a “textbook” definition:

Applied behavior analysis is “the science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for behavior change” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 20).

So what are the principles of behavior?  Behavior is defined as any observable, measurable movement that occurs in real time.  Behavior is different in each individual and changes throughout time.  A socially significant behavior simply means that the behavior affects the quality of the person’s daily life.  Behaviors are learned and maintained by reinforcers.  It is this principle of reinforcement that ABA Therapists use to improve socially significant behavior.  Here is a simple example of reinforcement and how it applies to behavior:

A 1 year old is learning to make sounds and say words.  When the child says “Mama” for the first time, her mother is elated and gives her lots of praise and attention.  The child begans saying “Mama” more frequently.

In this example the behavior is the child talking and the reinforcer is the mother’s positive attention.  When the mother added positive attention after the child displayed the behavior (saying “Mama”) the child increased the behavior.  This example shows how powerful reinforcement is in changing behavior.

Another important aspect of ABA is experimentation and data keeping.  A true ABA Therapist never assumes and always has data to support their conclusions.

For a therapy to be called ABA it must involve these three things:

  1. The behaviors that are selected for change must be of a social significance.  There is no point on changing a behavior that does not impact a person’s quality of life.
  2. The behaviors that are selected for change must be observable, defined, quantified, and measured.  This is extremely important in order to have accurate, reliable, and valid data.
  3. Behavior interventions must demonstrate control over the behavior selected for change.  This means that a behavioral intervention must change the behavior selected for change.  It doesn’t imply that the intervention worked, just that the intervention is targeting the correct behavior.
An ABA Therapist works underneath a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst).  It is the BCBA who writes behavior intervention plans and ensures they are being executed correctly.

What are the applications of ABA? ABA based treatment has been empirically validated as a successful intervention for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities (Odom et al., 2003).  However, ABA is not just for those with autism.  ABA has been used in the workplace to increase productivity and employee moral.  ABA can be used to change behaviors such as smoking, phobias, sexual activity, nail biting etc.  In the challenging world of parenting, ABA techniques are extremely useful.  I am sure many parents can agree that there are behaviors that their children do that would not be missed.  Behaviors like screaming, hitting, and basic non-compliance can be changed using ABA techniques.  This involves parent commitment to use these techniques properly and stick to them.


Odom, S. L., Brown, W. H., Frey, T., Karasu, N., Smith-Canter, L. L., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Evidence-based practices for young children with autism: Contributions from single-subject design research. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 166-175.

Work in progress!

13 Mar

Hello virtual world!  I am totally new to WordPress, but I eventually intend for this blog to be an advice column for handling challenging behaviors at home.  During my career as an ABA Therapist, I have learned how to analyze and solve behavior problems using ABA techniques that are also easy for parents to use.  I also am constantly tracking down the newest research about parenting and autism.  As quick as I can write and figure my way around WordPress, I plan on posting articles regarding challenging behavior and recent research in autism and other developmental delays.