Function and Problem Behavior

Client Behavior in Context

The function of client behavior is not always apparent.  What may seem obvious can actually be something quite different.  It is important that RBTs consider the behavior in the context in which it was observed.  Below are some contextual clues to understanding the function of client behavior.  These are not definitive guidelines, rather just some things to consider when narrowing down what the function of the behavior.

 Behavior typically receives a response from a personBehavior seems to occur at particular times of dayBehavior occurs when people are around and also when the client is alone
Obtain sensory stimulation
Escape/avoid sensory stimulation
Obtain attention
Escape attention
Obtain tangibles
Escape/avoid demands

Similar to what was discussed in the reinforcement lessons, RBTs will sometimes notice that their observations will differ from the staff the work with who have not received training in ABA.  This is especially true of behavior functions.  Consider the examples below.

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Henry is a resident in a community group home.  Henry will often fight with staff when they help hm prepare his meals in the kitchen.  The staff has assumed this was because Henry is lazy and does not want to prepare his meals.  They later realized that Henry preferred visual prompts to being touched.  When the staff stopped using phical prompts, Henry stopping fighting with them and made his food without incident.

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In the example above, it seemed like the staff were making Henry do something he did not want to do and Henry was engaging in behavior to get out of making his food.  Upon closer inspection, the staff were able to determine that Henry was not trying to escape the demand, he was escaping the physical prompts the staff were using with him.  This subtle difference means a lot for how to address Henry’s behavior and promote his independence in the kitchen.

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Jeffrey often acts out in class.  The teacher responds by correcting speaking in a firm tone of voice and sometimes sends him to the office.  To the other students, it seems as though Jeffrey is being punished for his behavior.  However, the reprimands and office referrals seem to actually increase the rate of Jeffrey’s acting out behaviors.   What is the function of Jeffrey’s behavior?

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In the example above, Jeffrey is acting out for adult attention.  Even though he is receiving reprimands and is told to leave the classroom, the teacher is singling him out and providing attention.  At the office, Jeffrey receives a lecture which is also one-on-one attention from an adult.

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Elizabeth has autism and will often speak out in a funny voice and recite lines from her favorite movie.  The other students think this is funny and will laugh when she does it.  The teachers gets angry and tells Elizabeth’s parents that she is acting out in class for attention.  What the teacher does not realize is that Elizabeth engages in the same behavior when she is alone in her bedroom.  What might be the function of Elizabeth’s behavior?

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In the example above, Elizabeth is likely speaking out in a funny voice for her own sensory stimulation.  This sort of behavior is common in individuals with autism.  Sometimes it is referred to as “stim behavior” which means behavior that serves the function of self-stimulation.