Multiply Controlled Behaviors

Categories: Interventions

Life couldn’t be too easy. If everything fell neatly and nicely into one perfectly sized box, we wouldn’t be special ed teachers. Our kiddos are tricky little guys. And sometimes they are really smart. Their behaviors couldn’t be solely attention or escape – no, no, no. Sometimes behaviors are what we call multiple controlled. They have more than one function. Based on the context, the same behavior can be used for both attention, escape, and even sensory. This is the time to get a little creative and innovative because it’s essential you aren’t accidentally reinforcing the behavior.

Why do multiply controlled behaviors exist? These behaviors exist because our kids quickly figure out what works and generalize that for other types of needs. Is every behavior you engage in to get attention? No, we engage in escape and sensory behaviors all day. Our students will engage in a behavior towards a certain function. They bite their teacher when they want to escape work. The result is amazing. Almost like an instantaneous and consistent get out of work card. Well dang. That worked well. Hmm… what about when I want to get extra pizza? Remember that biting thing. Maybe I’ll try that again. It worked so well before. Chomp, chomp, and the exhausted teacher pushes over some extra pizza in sheer desperation. And the multiply controlled behavior is born.

Some Tips:

Re-examine Baseline Data Look at your baseline data again. Investigate under which occurrences the behavior has one function over another function. Consider: environment, time of day, antecedent, presence of specific students/adults/reinforcers.  Create some type of guideline or hypothesis of when the behavior has each function.

Explicitly Clarify Behavior Management Plans These are not going to be the most basic or easy to follow interventions. You NEED to explicitly plan when to change interventions based on when you think the function has changed. Make an overly detailed plan. The key here is teaching your staff to follow this. This may be tricky because you may feel like you are haphazardly changing methods so it can be hard to train staff while playing around with interventions. Spend the time training and retraining your staff. Consider using Behavior Plan Flow Charts and a staff white board to make sure everyone is on the same page! 

Use Tokens as Reinforcers When I hear multiply controlled behaviors, I immediately think – token economy. There are a ton of reasons why I love token economies but their ability to account for multiple functions is #1 on my list. A well-run and well-setup token economy is a tiny gift from above. You can use tokens as reinforcers is KEY and alter the reinforcement. Tokens can be exchanged for a wide range of reinforcer options. Include all types of potential functions within backup reinforcer. Ie: exchange token for break, treats, teacher attention, game time, etc. So the student can simultaneously be working for either a break or attention/tangible depending on the function of the behavior at the time. This is essential for accommodating for multiple functions.


  1. When using the token economy, do you hand them the tokens, or place it in their pockets for them with praise?

  2. Either way! It depends on the kids and the system. Sometimes, I give students the tokens throughout the lesson or activity to keep a small pile on their desk and then they add it to their pocket during a transition. Or I give it in the pocket myself. I like to mix it up if possible! 🙂


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