Functions of behaviour

Behaviours that are repeated have some sort of function. Identifying the function of a behaviour means investigating why that behaviour is occurring. For challenging behaviours, a psychologist or behavioural therapist would conduct a functional assessment of behaviour by observing the behaviour in the situation where it occurs. This means looking at what happens before (antecedents), during (the behaviour itself) and after the behaviour (consequence) – known as the ABC approach. After multiple observations of the behaviour, one can begin to form a hypothesis or theory on why the behaviour may be occurring, and when it is likely to occur (i.e. triggers).

There are four main functions of behaviour – social attention, access to tangible items or preferred activities, escape or avoidance of demands and activities, and sensory sensitivities (this could be seeking or avoiding sensory input). Challenging behaviour often occurs because the individual is unable to communicate their wants or needs for attention, medical care, preference for items or activities, dislike for people or activities, need for assistance, or how sensory stimuli are affecting them.

The four functions are:

1. Social attention
Behaviour may occur to gain attention from another person. Attention may be in the form of laughing at them, playing, comforting or scolding.

2. Tangible items and preferred activities
An individual may engage in behaviour to get access to an item or activity. For example, a child may throw a tantrum to get a chocolate bar at the supermarket.

A tantrum (a manipulative technique to gain access to a preferred item) is not to be confused with a meltdown (due to sensory overload).

3. Escape or avoidance of activities or people
An individual may behave in a way to get something removed from their environment. For example, when Susan hits those around her during her reading lesson and then she is sent out of class. The reinforcing consequence here is getting removed from the task.

4. Sensory sensitivities or input
Behaviour may also occur when it is rewarding to their senses – either by providing sensory input or removing sensory input. One child may rock back and forth because it is enjoyable for them and provides sensory input, while another individual might yell loudly in an effort to block out other noises if they are sensitive to sound.After assessing the function of the behaviour, a psychologist or behavioural therapist will develop a behaviour plan which will aim to modify either the environment or the consequence to reduce the behaviour. As the behaviour has a purpose, it’s often necessary to replace it with a more appropriate behaviour – such as asking for assistance, or asking for a preferred item. Behavioural strategies often aim to increase communication (either verbal or non-verbal methods) and teach replacement behaviours to meet the needs of the individual. It is important to note that when the consequences are changed, it is likely that you will see an increase in that behaviour before it decreases – this is known as an extinction burst, when the person increases the frequency or severity of their behaviour to try and gain that same consequence that previously worked. Change can take time – especially if a new skill needs to be taught. Consistency is the key.

We recommend that if any behavioural difficulties are putting you or others at risk of harm, then please seek professional help immediately. New Zealand has a Behavioural service called Explore – which can be accessed through your local Needs Assessment and Coordination Service (NASC).

Tegan Andrews
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