Common Functions of Problem Behavior

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 12, 2011

When we make presentations to special and general educators of students at all ages and ability levels around the United States, we often ask, ''What are the two most common functions of inappropriate behavior?'' Almost without fail, educators quickly respond with ''attention'' and ''escape or avoidance,'' and they are exactly right. Educators usually know their students well and often instinctively know what the function of the problem behavior is. However, they don't always react in the most effective and efficient way based on this knowledge. The most common traditional approaches to behavior management are lecturing (attention), time-out (escape or avoidance), and suspension (more escape or avoidance). Clearly we need a larger toolbox of interventions and a problem-solving process for choosing which ones to use when. The rest of this chapter discusses other common functions of problem behaviors, and the entire book provides a framework for matching responses and interventions to these functions.

The classic text Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers categorizes functions of behavior as attention seeking and escape and avoidance.12 Others divide all possible functions into positive and negative reinforcement.13 Yet still others suggest that some functions cannot be classified into these two categories and have identified various other possible functions, such as power or control, affiliation (belongingness), justice, gratification, and revenge.14 Clearly there is no universally accepted list of possible functions of behavior.

As educators attempting to use FBA in the school environment, we never found dividing functions into broad categories to be very helpful. Rather, in our daily practices, we have come up with the following categories in our attempt to understand the common functions of students' problem behavior and use them to guide the development of effective responses and interventions:

  • To get attention or a reaction from peers and adults
  • To get something tangible
  • To get power or control
  • To meet a sensory need
  • To communicate feelings, wants, and needs
  • As a result of a lack of understanding
  • To escape or avoid something

We will look briefly at each of these.

To Get Attention or a Reaction

The most common mistake teachers make when attempting to intervene with students with behavior challenges is they forget about or underestimate the power of attention or reaction as a reinforcer. As we will discuss in depth in Chapter Nine, whether something acts as a reinforcer is the effect it has on behavior, not the intent of the educator. Although you may think that lecturing, reprimanding, and repeatedly giving long explanations for why behavior is inappropriate will cause the student to reflect on and decrease her inappropriate behavior, the opposite is often true for many students with chronic behavior problems. Many of these individuals are not stellar students who are involved in lots of school activities, and they rarely get any attention when they are behaving appropriately. For these students, negative attention is better than none at all. In addition, many of these students are miserable at school: they face enormous academic and social challenges and see educators as the deliverers of their miserable circumstances. When educators react negatively to these students' behavior, even by doing something as seemingly slight as rolling their eyes or tensing their bodies, the students see evidence that their inappropriate behavior is making educators uncomfortable or upset and are actually reinforced by this. They may think, ''Well, if I am miserable, everyone else might as well be too.'' We all know the old saying that misery loves company.

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