Why is my child acting this way?: Identifying the function of their behavior
As parents, it can be hard to understand why our child is engaging in a particular behavior. But before we can begin to understand the reasoning behind the behavior, we have to understand the purpose of that behavior. This means that we need to know and understand what the four basic functions of behavior are. Once we understand that, then we can begin to delve into the “why”.
What are the functions of behavior and how can I identify them?
The first function is Self Stimulatory or Sensory. This is the“The Feel Good” behavior. In other words, your child may engage in certain behaviors because it feels good to them or they may be trying to achieve some sort of sensory output. These can be behaviors such as rocking back and forth, hand flapping, specific repeated vocalizations and intently gazing in one direction. It may be hard to understand why their sensory-maintained behaviors feel good to them but if you think about it, we probably all engage in behaviors that serve the same purpose. For example, have you ever tapped the end of your pen on a desk or twirled the ends of your hair? What about randomly rubbing your face or beard? These types of behaviors serve the purpose of self-stimulation.
The next function is escape. This is the “I don’t want it that way” behavior. In other words, your child may display certain behaviors in order to communicate that they don’t want to do something, such as clean up their toys or avoid going somewhere, such as the doctor’s office. Or they may be trying to communicate that they don’t want to be around a certain environment, such as a loud birthday party. Examples might include crying, whining, stomping or even frowning or covering their ears with their hands. They may also just simply tell you “no”. Whenever your child engages in behaviors that indicate that they are trying to avoid a task or aversive situation, they are trying to communicate that they are wanting to avoid what is being asked of them.
The 3rd function is attention. This is the “The Look at Me Now” behavior. Your child may engage in certain behaviors in order to communicate that they want your attention. This can happen when you’re on the phone with someone, tending to other children or when you’re talking to your significant other. Or it can even happen when you’re unwinding from your day and relaxing on the couch. Examples of attention-maintained behaviors can include your child looking at you while doing something that they know you don’t particularly like. Or it can involve them crying or shouting for your attention or even running away with your personal belongings. It may just simply be them telling you “look at me”. Whatever the case may be, when your child engages in attention-seeking behavior, they are trying to communicate that they are in need of attention.
The final function is tangible. This is the “I want it now” behavior. In other words, your child may be trying to communicate that they want something that they don’t have or be trying to express that they are displeased with having to end their favorite activity. For example, they may argue whenever you tell them that it’s time to turn off the TV or cry when they want a snack that they can’t have right before dinner time. When your child displays behaviors that indicate they want something that is not available to them, they are trying to communicate that they want that desired item or activity back.
No matter what behavior your child engages in, a key point to remember is that all behaviors are a form of communication and they all have a function. Once you begin to understand the functions of behavior, then you can begin to understand the reasoning behind your child’s behavior.