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Child Development - Understanding Why We Do What We Do: The Function of Behaviors

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A young child plays with bubbles

By Christine Raches, PsyD, HSPP, BCBA
Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics
Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development

Why do we do the things that we do? What drives children to engage in negative and inappropriate behaviors? Behavior Analysts have frequently discussed the importance of understanding the function of behaviors when attempting to change behaviors. There are generally 4 accepted functions used to explain how and why a behavior occurs. 

1. Attention
At times, children (and adults) will engage in a behavior simply because they want to gain the attention of someone else. This behavior can be a good behavior (such as saying “Hey mom. Look at this!” or a negative behavior (such as hitting your brother). While it seems unusual that a child (or adult) would want attention for a negative behavior, the old saying that “any attention is better than no attention” can ring true. 

Behavior Suggestion: If your child is engaging in attention-seeking behaviors, it is important that these behaviors are NOT reinforced. This means that they should not get any response or attention from anyone present. Planned ignoring is an excellent strategy to help minimize this type of behavior. Additionally, parents/caregivers need to give a significant amount of attention when something positive happens. Show the child that he/she can get your attention, but only when they are doing something appropriate. 

2. Access to Tangibles or Activities
A child will often engage in a behavior to gain access to something. Again, this can be positive behavior (such as asking permission to get a snack) or it can be a negative behavior (such as screaming and crying until mom/dad breaks down and buys them a desired toy). 

Behavior Suggestion: If your child wants to gain access to an item and is engaging in a negative behavior, it is important to teach a more appropriate replacement behavior. This may be giving him/her the language to ask nicely or this may be showing them a new way to do something. It is extremely important that the parent/caregiver NOT allow the child to have access to the desired item when the child is engaging in a negative behavior. This is giving in and only teaches the child that he/she can get what he/she wants by doing the negative behavior.

3. Escape/Avoidance
A child will engage in a negative behavior to get out of doing a nonpreferred task. This may be throwing a temper tantrum or hitting as a way to get out of doing something. This can also be running away or leaving the room.  The key here is that the child DOES NOT want to do something that is being asked of them and they are engaging in behavior to get out of doing it. 

Behavior Suggestion: Children who are engaging in negative behaviors for escapes/avoidance should be required to finish the task. Time-out is not appropriate here because the child is getting what he/she wants (avoiding or early termination of the task). Parents need to see the task through to completion by requiring the child participate before allowing them to leave or end a task. This may mean offering physical assistance (putting your hand over their hand while they put toys away) or not allowing them to do anything else until the required task is completed. 

4. Sensory Stimulation
If none of the three above mentioned functions appears to explain the behavior, it might be that the behavior is occurring simply because the child is getting some sort of sensory input or stimulation from it. For example, a child may rock back and forth because it is pleasing to them. 

Behavior Suggestion: If a child is engaging in a behavior for sensory stimulation purposes, we need to work to find a more appropriate replacement behavior. Identify what the sensory input is and see if there is something else that can give that input but that is more socially acceptable. 

Parents often report negative and difficult behaviors. Understanding why a behavior is happening can assist with identifying how to minimize or stop a negative behavior. 

Dr. Christine Raches is a clinical psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Riley Child Development Center. She currently serves as the Training Director for the LEND Program. She participates on an interdisciplinary team that conducts evaluations on children with suspected neurodevelopmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, or developmental delays. She also supervises graduate- and post-graduate- level trainees.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Cristy James

Resource and Data Coordinator

Data coordinator in Pediatrics division of Child Development.