What Are Functional Assessments and the Four Main Functions of Behavior?

What are functional assessments?

Functional assessments are used to develop interventions for helping people change their behavior. A functional assessment is a procedure that is used to help identify what is reinforcing or

maintaining the behavior of concern. In order to generate a hypothesis about why an individual does something, a behavior analyst gathers information about the problem behavior (anything an individual does that is harmful or undesirable in some way). By observing the antecedents (what happened immediately before the behavior) and the consequences (what happened immediately after the behavior) of the problem behavior, behavior analysts can develop a probable cause for the behavior.

What is the function of behavior?

The function of behavior is the reason people behave in a certain way. People engage in millions of different behaviors each day, but the reasons for doing these different behaviors fall into four main categories.

The four main functions that maintain behaviors are:

  • Escape/Avoidance: The individual behaves in order to get out of doing something he/she does not want to do.
  • Attention Seeking: The individual behaves to get focused attention from parents, teachers, siblings, peers, or other people that are around them.
  • Seeking Access to Materials: The individual behaves in order to get a preferred item or participate in an enjoyable activity.
  • Sensory Stimulation: The individual behaves in a specific way because it feels good to them.

Once you have identified what function or functions are maintaining the behavior, you can start to implement an intervention that will help decrease the problem behavior and increase more appropriate behaviors.

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5 replies
  1. Duncan
    Duncan says:

    Safety would fall under the Escape/Avoidance function. If a person engages in a behavior to help keep them safe (i.e., putting seat belt on), the function of that behavior may be to escape/avoid injury.

    Control is very tricky, I stay away from the word honestly because I think people get confused. More often than not (99.9% of the time in my experience), control is a bi-product of a previously attempted function (i.e., break time is over, time to put your toys away, and the student becomes non-compliant, elopes to a different setting, or engages in self-injurious behavior. At face value, you could say they engaged in all functions, escape, sensory, attention seeking, but they all were in response to the original tangible item being removed). Hope that makes sense.

  2. Emily
    Emily says:

    My son gets emotional ( red watery eyes) when struggling with a task but when we ask him if he wants to take a break, he wants to work through it. Would you say this escape even though he still wants to complete the task?

    • Olivia Smith
      Olivia Smith says:

      Dear Emily,
      Without seeing your son’s behavior it is difficult to say definitively what the function of his behavior is. However, with some additional information we may be closer to figuring out the function. From what you have said, it seems like we can rule out ‘seeking access to materials’, as you didn’t mention him doing this after he has had something removed in order to do his task. That leaves three potential functions: escape/avoidance, attention seeking, or sensory stimulation. By either answering some questions or taking some additional notes if it occurs again, you may be able to eliminate the functions that are incorrect, leaving you with the correct function.
      • Escape/avoidance:
      o Do you provide help during these tasks or does he continue doing it on his own?
      o After he completes the task where he had red watery eyes, does he stop doing any more tasks vs. the tasks that he doesn’t have red watery eyes, does he multiple tasks before being done?
      • Attention Seeking
      o Does he attempt to show you or tell you his eyes are watering?
      o Do you comfort him physically (rub his back, hug him) or vocally (“It’s okay”) when his eyes are red and watery?
      o When this happens do you sit by him vs. when he doesn’t have red watery eyes does he do his tasks alone?
      • Sensory Stimulation:
      o Does this occur when he is by himself as well as around others?
      Here are some other questions to consider as well:
      • Is it a specific challenging task or any challenging task?
      • Is this more likely to occur with tasks at a certain time of day?
      • Is this more likely to occur when a specific person gives him a task?

      The key thing to remember is that once you figure out the function of the behavior, you will want to teach a skill to replace him having red watery eyes to meet his needs at that time. For example, if it is to receive support on his task, which falls under the function of escape/avoidance, you could teach him to ask for help. If it was to have you sit next to him without providing any support on the task, which falls under the function of attention, you could teach him to ask you to sit with him as he does his task.

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