Common Functions of Problem Behavior (page 3)
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.
To Get Something Tangible
We have found that many students have obsessive interests or needs that they will pretty much do anything to get access to. We have worked with several students with Prader-Willi syndrome, a chromosomal disorder partially characterized by a chronic feeling of hunger. Access to food is often a common function for a variety of inappropriate behaviors for these individuals. Students on the autism spectrum often have such intense interests that they will engage in all types of interesting and potentially inappropriate and disruptive behaviors to gain access to their current fixation.
To Obtain a Sense of Power or Control
Nothing is more frustrating to educators than students who engage in countercontrol: situations in which adults attempt to change the behavior of a student and the student responds by trying to change the adult's behavior because of resentment at being controlled.15 These individuals are often described as manipulative, oppositional-defiant, stubborn, rebellious, and noncompliant. It is amazing at times the lengths they will go to simply to do the opposite of what adults tell them to do. When you say up, they say down. When you say black, they say white. You give them a line, and they will put their toe across it and look at you as if to say, ''What are you going to do about it?'' You give them a time limit and they comply the second after the time is up.
To Meet a Sensory Need
Hypo- or hyperprocessing in one or more of the sensory systems is common for students on the autism spectrum and others who commonly exhibit challenging behavior. Many students seek movement, deep pressure, or tactile stimulation, resulting in all kinds of potentially odd or disruptive behavior. Finding acceptable, more socially appropriate alternatives is key when meeting this function.
To Communicate Feelings
A majority of children with behavioral and social challenges also demonstrate problems in receptive and/or expressive language.16 Considering how complex human interaction is, think about how stressful daily life must be for individuals in an environment where academics and social interaction are the main focus, both requiring a great deal of expressive and receptive language skills, and how difficult it must be for these individuals to be able to communicate their feelings appropriately when they struggle with the language skills that most people simply take for granted.
As a Result of a Lack of Understanding
Many students with challenging behavior struggle with an area of language called pragmatics. This is particularly true of students with Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism spectrum disorder. Pragmatics refers to the social rules of language—for example:17
- Using language for different purposes (greeting, requesting, information)
- Changing language according to the needs of the listener or situation (speaking differently with close friends versus strangers)
- Following conversational rules (taking turns, eye contact)
These individuals also typically have theory-of-mind deficits, which cause them to have difficulty understanding their emotions and mental states, as well as the emotions and mental states of others.18 Students with deficits in this area commonly have the following types of problems:
- Understanding and predicting their own emotions and behaviors
- Understanding and predicting the emotions and behaviors of others
- Taking others' perspective
- Inferring others' intentions
- Understanding that their behavior has an impact on how others think and feel
These deficits can make understanding the complexities of interpersonal interaction and behavioral expectations in various contexts difficult, even impossible. This is often called the ''hidden curriculum,'' which refers to social rules that are usually not directly taught but rather are assumed to be known because most people pick them up naturally through observation or social learning. Lack of understanding becomes a common function of problem behavior for these students in many cases.
To Escape or Avoid Something
Educational environments are often aversive to students for a variety of reasons. Some students are behind academically and the tasks presented are difficult for them. Some students lack social skills, and with so many peers present, their learning environment can become highly stressful for them. Some students are overwhelmed by the sensory input that often accompanies loud and crowded hallways and the cafeteria. Due to their difficulties with pragmatic language and understanding the hidden curriculum, school is a difficult environment for some students. It is understandable that many of these students simply want a way out.