Inappropriate behavior exists everywhere around us, in many forms and for different reasons, but when is inappropriate behavior actually considered a problem? Maybe when it occurs too often? Or maybe when it occurs in the wrong place? How about when our children get older? A child’s tantrum may seem cute at first, but probably not the case if it maintains, or worse, becomes more intense overtime. Very often, problem behavior may inhibit a child from acquiring new skills, accessing fair social opportunities, and can even result in restrictive placements.
Within the field of ABA, we take the perspective that behavior serves as a form of communication. “Once you learn the language of their behavior, you’ll be able to employ strategies to decrease the problem behaviors and increase good behaviors” (Barbera 2007, P. 28). So, what does it mean to learn the language of their behavior? It means that first we must identify the function of the behavior, or in other words, what is causing the behavior to occur and/or persist? This is critical of any effective behavior intervention plan (BIP) and allows one to employ function-based treatment. Practitioners may be able to identify the root cause(s) of the behavior and find an appropriate replacement behavior(s) that serves the same function.
For instance, let’s consider an example of a child that engages in tantrum behavior during homework. As a parent, it is crucial to pay close attention to what happens right before the behavior (antecedent) and what occurs right after the behavior (consequence). So let’s give it a try!
Our non-vocal learner, Mikey, is sitting quietly at the table when his mother sets his homework and a pencil down in front of him and says “time to finish your homework”. Immediately following his mother’s instruction Mikey begins to throw items, hit, kick, and cry. In order to make Mikey happy, his mother immediately takes away the homework and tells him they will try again another time.
Well, let’s take a look at what Mikey was trying to communicate through problem behavior. What occurred right before Mikey began to tantrum? The presentation of homework along with Mom’s instruction to begin. Hmm, okay that seems straight-forward. And then what happened right after? Mom removed the homework and said they can try again later. So, was Mikey really engaging in problem behavior or did he just learn an effective way to get out of homework? Both statements are likely to be true, however, the important message is that we identify the function of behavior by objectively recording what typically comes before and after an occurrence of problem behavior.
Back to the original question, the function of problem behavior is important so that we can teach our learners an appropriate alternative response to gain access to the same reinforcer that problem behavior previously produced. Also, it is very important that the inappropriate response is no longer honored. We could not do this without knowing the function of the behavior. In the above example, the mother could prompt the child to sign “break” and only allow that appropriate communicative response to remove his homework (not the tantrum). Applying function-based treatment is one of the principles of “best practice” and leads to the most effective results. If the goal is to reduce problem behavior and teach a more appropriate response, remember, function-based treatment is the best way to go.
Disclaimer: If you are experiencing severe problem behavior please seek out guidance from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) immediately.
Barbera, M. L. and Rasmussen, T. (2007). The Verbal Behavior Approach. How to Teach Children
with Autism and Related Disorders.
Dozier, C. D. and Neidert, P. L. (ND). Function-based Intervention for Children with ASD.
University of Kansas: Edna A. Hill Child Development Center