I spent years working in the school system with kids who showed behaviours that staff and parents didn’t necessarily want to see–fighting, withdrawing, meltdowns, etc… Despite a fancy title, my job was actually quite simple. Find out the function of the child’s behaviours and work to prevent it and/or provide a better coping mechanism.
After discussions with parents and teachers about the issue and my recommendations, I realized that basic information about why a child acts the way they do was new information for them. How unfair to ask parents and teachers to raise/teach/support children and not teach them about the basics of behaviours! So here is a little lesson that we can call Behaviours 101.
There are 4 main functions of behaviour. When you child performs an action, you will be able to trace the cause back to one of these four reasons:
- Escape/Avoidance- the behaviour gets them out of something they don’t want to do
- Attention seeking- the behaviours gets them attention
- Access to materials- the behaviour gets them a preferred item or access to a favourable activity
- Sensory stimulation- the behaviour makes them feel good
Behaviours are maintained through reinforcement. When a child gets out of something they don’t want to do, it’s negative reinforcement. When a child gets what they want from the behaviour, it’s positive reinforcement. When the behaviour works how the child wants it to, the behaviour will continue.
If you want to change a behaviour, find out WHY the child is doing it. Consider how it is or is not being reinforced and use that to come up with an action plan.
This information can help you guide a child to do more positive behaviours and less negative behaviours. Here are a few examples:
A child is having a tantrum to have a turn on the iPad so a parent gives it to him/her to make him/her stop.
FUNCTION- Access to materials [iPad]
REINFORCEMENT- Positive Reinforcement [Parent rewards behaviour with iPad]
ACTION PLAN- Ignore the tantrum and when it is complete and the child is able to talk, explain that screaming is not the right way to ask for the iPad. Tell the child what you would like to see instead (i.e. “Use your words to ask for the iPad”). When the child performs the preferred behaviour (Using words and not screaming) then reward him/her with the iPad. DO NOT give the iPad for the negative behaviour. The old behaviour of a tantrum gets no reward and does not perform the function. The new behaviour has the same function and is rewarded, so that is the behaviour that the child will continue because it worked!
A child tugs on your shirt when you are speaking to another adult and says “Excuse me”.
FUNCTION- Attention seeking [Attention from parent]
REINFORCEMENT- Positive Reinforcement [Parent turns to child and responds]
ACTION PLAN- This is a good behaviour! We want the child to continue to politely interrupt so we reinforce the behaviour. Turn to your child and say “I liked the way you asked for my attention politely. What do you need?”. You want the child to continue this behaviour so you want to show that it serves the function that he/she intended.
A non-verbal child with Autism Spectrum Disorder has a meltdown every morning in the car on the way to school.
INVESTIGATE- You observe the behaviour and realize that it is occurring at the same time each morning. Consider the variables that occur at that time that may be bothering the child. You realize that the meltdowns are occurring as your car passes by the child’s parent’s workplace.
FUNCTION- Access to materials [The parent]
REINFORCEMENT- Do not stop the car to see the parent. This will reinforce to the child that their tantrum behaviour achieved what they intended and they will do it again to get the same reward.
ACTION PLAN- Prevent the situation. Find a way to school where you do not need to pass by your spouse’s workplace.
So, keeping in mind the function of a behaviour and how it is reinforced, think of some of your child’s behaviours. If they are good behaviours, ask yourself how you can reinforce them so that they continue and increase. If they are negative behaviours, ask yourself how they can stop being reinforced to that they decrease and stop. Hopefully this information can help you to better understand your child and why they behave the way that they do.
As always, if you have any questions, please ask!