When you’re dealing with a challenging behavior, understanding WHY it is occurring is the most important place to start.

In Behavior Analysis, we focus a lot on the WHY of behavior- we call it the function of behavior. There is a saying in my field which is “Behavior is always right.” Basically this means that if a behavior is occurring, there is a reason for it and it is serving a purpose (even if maladaptive). Understanding the function of behavior helps us to understand WHY a behavior is occurring and will give parents, teachers and caregivers a useful place to start when designing a plan for change. Without knowing the function of the behavior, there is a risk that your attempts to change the behavior could be unproductive, ineffective or worse.

For example…

Imagine a student is engaging in disruptive behaviors during class time at school.

Let’s say the function of the behavior for this student was to escape the academic demands or sensory stimuli in the classroom. If the teacher provided a consequence of sending the child to the principal’s office when they engaged in disruptive behavior it might actually be reinforcing (increase the behavior) rather than decrease that behavior for this student. The consequence of sending the child to the principal’s office (and leaving the classroom) could make things worse (more disruptive behavior next time) because the child has learned a reliable way to escape the classroom. The disruptive behavior is working.

Now imagine a different student engaging in the same kind of disruptive behavior (it looks the same) but the function is to gain their peers attention. In this instance, sending the child to the principal’s office as a consequence for disruptive behavior may actually be effective to decrease disruptive behavior because it is no longer an effective and reliable path to gain attention. Disruptive behavior isn’t working.

Same Behavior. Different Functions = Different Interventions Needed

Behavior is always communicating something. If we miss what the child is trying to communicate, we may not address the core issue. For a child who is looking to escape the classroom, perhaps they are communicating a need for more support with academics or a need to practice self-advocacy to ask for a break when needed. For a child who is looking for attention, teaching and practicing social skills may be needed – help them learn how to get their peers attention in the right way at the right time.

Behavior is messy; functions of behavior are not always cut and dry – often there are multiple functions maintaining a behavior at the same time. So when things are messy or unclear, what guides our practice is DATA! We have to follow the data. Our personal experiences and assumptions influence everything we do and make us prone to error. To accurately understand behavior, we need to track it over time and in different environments using objective measures. And then when an intervention is used, data gives us the tool to track if it is working or if it needs to be adapted.

When parents approach me for support, I often have them begin by collecting behavior data about the environment. I am interested in the antecedent events that precede challenging behavior, what the behavior looks like, and what happens immediately following the behavior (ABCs). This serves as our map – a tool to understand the WHY. When the WHY becomes clear, the solutions become clear. We don’t want to waste time, we want to teach and practice the skills that are directly related to the challenging behavior. When a challenging behavior is occurring, we want to replace it with a different behavior that will serve the same function. It will ‘work’ in the same way to get their needs met.

There are general proactive, preventative strategies that can be useful regardless of behavioral function but when it comes to responding to challenging behavior, knowing the function is imperative.

So if you are experiencing a particular challenge with your child and the parenting advice from a friend or website just isn’t working, you may need to consider identifying the WHY. What works for one child may not work for another child.

Treating behavior challenges should be just as unique as treating physical illness; you can’t just toss a generic multivitamin at a child suffering from allergies – you need to identify and treat the actual cause of the issue. The same is true with behavior. A one-size-fits-all approach to behavior is not sufficient for complex humans with complex learning histories.