Common Functions of Problem Behavior
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.
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