Why is This Behavior Occurring?

Everyone has walked into a grocery store and seen a child crying while reaching for a candy bar in the checkout lane. Perhaps you’ve experienced a toddler cry and scream when you walk out of the room, only to hear her stop as soon as you walk back inside. If you’re a parent, you may have witnessed your child have a huge meltdown with yelling and tears when you tell him “it’s time to go to bed!” Although many of these behaviors may look very similar in nature, the functions, or reasons why these behaviors are occurring, may all be very different.

The four primary functions that maintain behaviors are:

  1. Social attention. The individual engages in behavior to gain social attention from another person. For example, a child might throw a toy to get her mom to play with her.
  2. Escape or avoidance. The individual engages in behavior to get out of a situation or avoid something altogether. For example, a teenager may become aggressive so he can get out of cleaning his room.
  3. Access. The individual engages in behavior to access tangible items or preferred activities. For example, an individual might scream in order to access his iPad.
  4. Sensory stimulation. The individual engages in behavior because it feels good to them. For example, an individual may rock back and forth violently to obtain sensory input, or another individual may persistently bite her nails and cuticles for the same purpose.

Functional behavior assessments are procedures used to determine the conditions that typically surround a particular problem behavior in order to understand, predict, and then change that behavior. When a professional trained in functional behavior assessments treats challenging behaviors, the most important question is “why is this behavior occurring?” In other words, what need does this behavior address for the individual, or what is this behavior communicating?

Teaching a replacement behavior

Once the “why” is determined, the team can apply strategies that prevent problem behavior, and can teach and reinforce more appropriate behavior that serves to replace the problematic behavior. For instance, the team might teach a child to say “I need help” rather than throwing toys on the ground and yelling when he can’t get his toy to work. As another example, a teacher may give a student a short break from class work every 10 minutes if the teacher has determined that the student engages in noncompliance approximately every 15 minutes to escape the demand of class work. This opportunity for a break might be depicted on the student’s visual schedule so that the student can anticipate when a break is coming. In addition, the teacher would evaluate (and perhaps adjust) the work content and presentation mode to promote more successful academic responding.

Behavior is often complex, and in some cases, behaviors can serve multiple functions. For example, a student who screams and yells when presented with academic work might do so to escape or avoid the work. But in addition, he might engage in these behaviors because he receives social attention (e.g., emotional reactions, mild reprimands) in response to these behaviors. In this case, the behavior is “fueled” by escape and secondarily, by attention. Behaviors are also influenced by conditions that are not immediately observable. This is true for all of us. Setting events are underlying events that increase the likelihood that behaviors may occur. Illness, fatigue, overstimulation, and pain are examples of setting events that can influence problem behavior.

Addressing problem behavior is not easy. But the first and most fundamental step is to determine why it is happening. From there, the team can work to identify and implement strategies that are responsive to the reason(s) for the behavior.

Alyssa McElwee, MEd, BCBA, works in ASNC’s Clinical Department in the Triangle region and can be reached at

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.