Understanding Behavior

Beach Center on Disability, University of Kansas
Understanding Behavior

When a child shows challenging behavior at home, traditional disciplinary approaches used by parents have relied on negative consequences, such as punishment. However, Positive Behavior Support (PBS) can provide a new way of looking at, thinking about, and solving difficult situations caused by challenging behavior. One of the main problems with negative consequences is that they don't teach appropriate behavior. Although punishment can stop a child's behavior immediately, it doesn't teach new skills that replace the problem behavior with more appropriate, positive behavior. PBS focuses on positive and educational approaches rather than negative consequence-based methods. Understanding the child's behavior is the first and most important step. To understand a child's behavior, it is recommended that parents observe challenging behavior carefully and think about the meaning of the behavior because every behavior occurs for a reason. In most cases, the child behavior serves as a communication tool, sending everyone a clear message about the child's feelings, physical status, and needs. The message of the child's behavior is called the "function" of the problem behavior.

Function of Behavior and Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). A Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is the process by which we engage in detective work in order to find the meaning contained in the message (function) that the child is communicating about her/his behavior. In other words, FBA is all about answering the question, "Why does a child keep doing the challenging behavior over and over?" The FBA provides the following information to help answer that question.

  • What is the problem behavior?
  • What does it look like?
  • When does it happen?
  • Where does it happen?
  • Are there any home or community routines when the problem behavior seems to consistently occur?
  • What people (family members, friends, neighbors, community members) seem to be involved in the problem behavior when it occurs?
  • What do people say or do, or what happens immediately BEFORE the problem behavior occurs?
  • What do people say or do, or what happens immediately AFTER the problem behavior occurs?
  • What are people's reactions right after to the problem behavior occurs (e.g., do they give the child lots of attention, do they give him/her items or objects that he/she wants, do they stop asking him/her to do something, do they take things away from the child, do they ignore the child)?

When these questions are considered carefully and the answers connected to each other, it is possible to make a "best guess" about a function of behavior. We call this "best guess" a hypothesis (or a hunch) about the possible function of the child's problem behavior. There are several functions of behavior — both "good" and "bad" behavior. In general, these are the functions of behavior:

  • Getting or obtaining attention from peers, family members or others
  • Getting or obtaining a desirable item or an object, or gaining access to a preferred activity
  • Getting or obtaining desired sensory input, feelings, sensations or physiological stimulation, such as by touching things, moving the body back and forth, tapping one's leg, smelling things, or tasting/mouthing things
  • Avoiding or escaping unwanted attention from peers, family members or others
  • Avoiding or escaping non-preferred items or objects, or difficult tasks and/or non-preferred activities
  • Avoiding or escaping unpleasant, or unwanted sensory input, feelings, sensations or physiological stimulation, such as by hitting oneself, scratching oneself, or engaging in other self-injurious behaviors when something hurts, feels bad, is uncomfortable, etc.

A-B-C Chart in Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). The A-B-C chart can help summarize the sequence of events around the challenging behavior. A, B, and C stand for the antecedent, behavior, and consequence of the challenging behavior.

  • Antecedent: An event that happens immediately before a challenging behavior. This can also act as a "fast trigger" for the challenging behavior
  • Behavior: Challenging behavior
  • Consequence: An event that immediately follows the challenging behavior.

One additional factor to consider is what is called a "setting event." A setting event can be an important clue to investigate in order to reduce or eliminate the challenging behavior.

  • Setting Event: Events or circumstances that affect the likelihood of the challenging behavior occurring at a later point in time.

Sometimes we think of setting events as those events or circumstances that act as "slow triggers" and set the stage for a behavior to be more (or less) likely to happen subsequently. Common examples of setting events may include illness, lack of sleep, or a stressful experience. When the setting event seriously affects the challenging behavior, the challenging behavior is not always totally related only to events that happen immediately before or after the challenging behavior. For example, think about a child who has a painful headache and shows tantrum-type behavior because of the headache. No matter what antecedent precedes the behavior, the child might show tantrum-type behavior until the headache goes away.

The following figure shows an example of an A-B-C chart, including a setting event.

In this example of the A-B-C chart, Arnold's challenging behavior resulted in a time-out. Arnold's mom considers the time-out a punishment; however, this consequence actually may make it more likely that Arnold will engage in the same problem behavior again next time. Why? Recall that Arnold's challenging behavior started to occur when he was told to do his math homework — something he does not like to do, nor does he know how to solve the math questions required in his homework assignment. He got punished because of the challenging behavior, yet at the same time by engaging in the problem behavior, Arnold was able to avoid doing his math homework. Even though his mother thought she was punishing her son, Arnold was allowed to escape/avoid doing a really unpleasant and highly non-preferred task....and he was actually reinforced by getting to avoid this task. The function of his problem behavior was to escape/avoid doing this unpleasant task, and his mother actually helped him avoid doing his homework by "allowing" him to go to time-out for the behavior. Next time, he is quite likely to engage in the same problem behavior again, because he knows this is a way that he can successfully get out of doing his math homework (unless, of course, his mother is clever enough to require him to return to complete at least some of his math homework, after his time-out is over!).

Thus, A-B-C chart allows us to discover the function of behavior more conveniently. This approach is also applied extensively in school settings to reduce challenging behavior.

Posted on BrainLine March 2, 2009.

From the Beach Center on Disability, University of Kansas. Used with permission. www.beachcenter.org.

Comments (1)

seems more like a behavioral psychology lesson or experience. this case is a win win for our person. or a lose(gains no skills) lose(learns in ths case punshment is easier than mastering what he needs help in, therefore never progresses) age may or may not play a role if we use a dfferent model. but learning is broad and vast. also in general, people many find it difficult to admit that cannot do or they do not know something, which also equates to no growth.