What’s the Function?

What's the Function?

“X doesn’t listen to me. They act out for no reason.”

Have you heard this as a way to describe someone’s behavior? Have you said these out loud too? By the end of this blog, you’ll better understand why individuals do what they do to create a more satisfying environment for yourself and the people you love.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) relies heavily on determinism. Determinism tells us we behave in specific ways to gain access to the things we want and to avoid the things we dislike. Let’s start off with the first sentence:

“X doesn’t listen to me.”

We first must identify what X is doing in lieu of listening. Rephrasing this sentence will clarify what we are looking at in terms of behavior. A better statement would be:

“X walks away when I say, “pick up your toys”.

We can now take a closer look at what is causing “walking away”. As mentioned before, all living beings behave to gain or avoid something that is happening in their surroundings. What exactly are they gaining or avoiding?

In behavior analysis, we categorize the reasons why into 4 functions. You may have heard someone say, “X does this for attention”, and they may be right! One of the 4 reasons why we do what we do includes access to attention, and it’s a popular one for us social beings! It’s that text you’ve been waiting on or a hug from that special someone. Inherently, we seek attention from others through various ways, some more effective than others.

There’s another one that may be fairly obvious and it includes that nice restaurant dinner you’re looking forward to or those football tickets you’ve been eyeing.

Did you guess access to tangibles? This function is a common one for children and adults alike. Food, clothes, shelter, video games – these are all included in this category. Anything and everything that is an item or activity is considered a tangible. We can ask for tangibles or earn them through others. What’s your favorite tangible and what are some ways you gain access to them?

Escape is another big reason and could be why the person in the example above is walking away after the instruction “Pick up your toys” is given. It may be to avoid the instruction all together. When a tough or novel situation is presented in a social setting, what happens? Fight or flight! In this case, fleeing was more effective, but escalation in the form of tantrums or aggressiveness is also common in this category.

What about other times when we do things on our own time just because they “feel” good? Like, sleeping in, listening to our favorite song, or taking a bath? These behaviors usually occur for sensory reasons. We call this automatic reinforcement. Sensory input and sensory deprivation are reasons why we may practice yoga or bite our nails to soothe ourselves.

To recap, humans are all limited to the same 4 functions: Attention, Tangibles, Escape, and Automatic Reinforcement. So, the next time you do something, ask yourself, WTF? What’s The Function? It may lead to better outcomes and discussions with others.

If you’d like to continue reading about the 4 functions of behavior or other topics in ABA, check out these two websites:

I Love ABA

Autism Mom

As always, please leave any questions or comments below and visit our homepage for more information.

Disclaimer: Behaviors can occur for medical reasons as well. Please rule-out any medical concerns before assuming it is tied to one of the above functions.

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