A helpful way to effectively tackle a child’s problem behavior is to figure out why it is happening in the first place. To implement an intervention without this important information may produce no results or even make the challenging behavior far worse than it was before implementing the tactic you’ve chosen.
To figure out a behavior’s possible function, first we have to look at the antecedent—whatever it is that happened right before the behavior. And secondly, we also have to pay attention to the consequence that happens while or after the behavior happened. This relationship between antecedent àbehavior ß consequence over time may contribute to why a child does the problem behavior.
There are four likely reason “why” a behavior may happen: for access, to escape/avoid, for attention, and for self-stimulation.
A problem behavior can be strengthened or reinforced when it produces a consequence that increases the chance of the problem behavior from happening again over time.
A child is told he cannot have his tablet to play video games on which results in the child engaging in tantrum behaviors. The parent does not want to deal with the tantrums so the child is given the tablet. In this example, tantrums after being told “NO, you can’t have ____” resulted in the child getting what he cannot have.
|Told no tablet/video games||Tantrums||Got tablet video games|
A problem behavior can be strengthened or reinforced when it produces a removal of something a person does not like (Escape). The same strengthening of the behavior may also happen if the behavior prevents something that a person does not like from happening at all (Avoidance). Providing the behavior with either consequence may strengthen the behavior over time.
Example 1 (Escape)
A child is asked by his parent if there is homework for the day. The child says yes and with her parent, starts working on the homework. As the work becomes more difficult, the child starts complaining to the parent. The parent instructs the child to continue working, but the child just continues complaining and eventually starts throwing pencils towards the wall. Unsure about what to do, the parent takes the homework off the table and tells the child that she doesn’t need to work on it anymore.
|Instruction to continue with school-work||Continual complaints, throwing pencil at wall||School-work removed|
Example 2 (Avoidance)
Upon getting home, the parent asks the child if there is homework for the day. The child replies, “No homework today, yay!” There is homework for that day.
|Parent asks about homework||Lies about having no homework||Homework avoided|
A problem behavior can be strengthened or reinforced when it produces any response from another person that leads to the likelihood on the problem behavior from happening again over time.
A family is having dinner at the table. The elder child starts playing with her food and manages to flick a pea from her plate across the table with her fork. The younger child starts laughing at his sibling being funny. The elder child then repeats the behavior which makes the younger child laugh hysterically. The parent asks the elder child to stop, but to no avail—peas scattered all over the dining table.
|Other people at the table||Flicking pea across the table (elder child)||Younger child laughing|
A problem behavior can also be reinforced automatically by the pleasant sensations the action produces. Parents can have an idea if a problem behavior may function for self-stimulation if the child performs the behavior regardless whether the child is around individuals or—and most especially—if the child is all alone.
A child watching a video on her tablet “rewinds” the video to a specific scene, watches the clip for a few seconds, then rewinds the video once again to watch the same scene. This chain of behaviors may repeat for an indefinite length of time.
|End of favorite clip (and “desire” to watch again||Rewinds video to the beginning of favorite scene||Watching favorite scene again|
Although there are now many tools that we can use to figure out the specific function of a behavior, parents and caregivers can still use A-B-C data analysis to help them find out the function(s) of a problem behavior to help determine the best tactic to use in addressing the behavioral difficulty. For complex or intense problem behaviors that can pose a hazard to a child’s and others’ safety, it is highly advised that parents/caregiver seek assistance from a qualified behavior analyst.