Why Knowing the Function Matters

Categories: Interventions

In the world of behavior reduction, we talk a lot about function. And when we say function we mean why is this behavior functioning for this student. Why is it working? And let’s be clear – it is working. That aggression, swearing, running, or property destruction is working for that kid. They are getting something out of it or else they wouldn’t be doing it. They are getting attention, a break, avoiding work or something else wonderfully amazing from that behavior. And it’s your job to figure what it is.

But why do we need to know the function?

We need to know why the problem behavior is occurring for two important reasons. One – you need to know how to respond. If you give a time out to an escape behavior, you are basically giving the student exactly what they want. You need to pick an intervention that matches the function. Check out this post on strategies for attention behaviors, this post for escape behaviors, and this one for sensory behaviors. If you haphazardly select an intervention to a problem behavior, you could actually be making the behavior much worse. So for this reason alone, determining function is key.

The other reason for needing to know the function of the problem behavior is so we can teach a replacement behavior. Just by working to decrease the negative response does NOT mean you are magically getting rid of the desire for that function. If hitting was working to get attention, if you decrease hitting – the student will still want attention. The only way to cause sustainable and generalized behavior change that last over time is to teach a replacement behavior that gets at that very same function that the problem behavior once did. You need to give the student an appropriate way to get at that same desire. Learn more about replacement behaviors here.

How do we figure out the function?

So I’ve sold you on why it’s essentially essential (yes – I used essential twice – it’s that important) to determine the function. But now how do you do it? It’s time for some good ole’ fashioned ABC data. You want to look at what happened before the behavior (the antecedent) and what happened after the behavior (the consequence) to try to figure out what is going on. When I first started teaching, I would take pages and pages of notes on this. I’d have spiral notebooks filled with ABC data. And that data stayed right in that notebook. I never learned anything from it. It was too hard to look back through my narratives and determine any pattern. Then ABC data checklists came into my life. They are simple to use and easily show trends I can learn from. Done.

My next favorite hack for helping to determine the function is using goole forms to help analyze your data. It sounds complicated but I promise it’s not. Check out this post to learn more. This is such a simple way to really learn for your data (that’s why we take data after all!) and determine the function of that problem behavior!


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