Like any other parent, my child’s behaviors sometimes have me wondering, “Why does she do that?!” All behaviors serve some kind of function for the child. Let’s explore what this might look like.
Suzy and Johnny are playing on the swings at the playground. Their mom, Jill, looks at her watch and realizes it’s time to go home for dinner before an activity they have planned in the evening. She tells Suzy and Johnny that it is late and they have to go home right away. Johnny whines and complains, but gets off the swing and walks toward Jill. Suzy ignores Jill and keeps swinging. Jill repeats her directions, a little louder. Suzy still ignores her mom. Holding Johnny by the hand, Jill walks over to the swings and tells Suzy it is time to go now, otherwise they can’t go to the activity after dinner. Suzy gets off the swing and runs to the slide. Johnny starts crying that he doesn’t want to miss the activity and Jill yells across the playground to Suzy. Then…..
Many of us have been there. Why won’t Suzy come when her mom tells her to? There is a reason, or function, for every behavior. The behavior is “working” for the child in some way. We have to determine: what is the child getting out of this?
Functions of behavior can be broken down into two categories: get something or get rid of something. In the past, the behavior has resulted in the child getting something that she wants, or getting rid of something she doesn’t want. We can look at what happened before and after the behavior occurred to try to find a pattern of what the child has been able to get or get rid of in the past.
Before the behavior, was a direction given? Was there an expectation that the child was supposed to follow? Was the child able to avoid following the direction because of his behavior? This is our first clue that the function of the behavior may be escape. Escape-maintained behaviors occur because, in the past, they resulted in getting rid of something that the child doesn’t want to do. In our example, Suzy may be trying to escape the direction from her mom to go home. Perhaps yesterday, Jill told Suzy it was time to go home, Suzy ignored her, and Jill gave her five more minutes to play. In that case, Suzy was able to escape her mom’s directions by ignoring her. When a similar situation occurs at the playground, Suzy may try to ignore her mother again so that she doesn’t have to leave the playground right away.
Was the child talking to some friends before the behavior occurred? Was her preferred adult talking to another child? Did the child get attention from the preferred adult because of her behavior? If so, it is possible that the function of the behavior is attention. Behaviors may occur in order to gain attention or get rid of attention. If Jill was playing with Johnny on the swings, Suzy may begin disobeying in order to gain her mother’s attention. In a different scenario, Suzy may have been talking to Johnny about a topic that he wasn’t interested in. Johnny yelled at Suzy and she ran away, crying. In that case, Johnny was able to get rid of Suzy’s attention by yelling.
Was the child told that she couldn’t have something? Did her behavior result in obtaining the item? Access might be the function in this case. A great example is the candy in the grocery store check-out. If a child cries that they want candy during the check-out, and the caregiver buys the candy after several minutes of screaming, the child is more likely to scream and cry in the check-out in the future.
Does the behavior occur in different locations and at different times of the day, regardless of whether anyone else is nearby? It is possible that the function of the behavior is sensory. Sensory-maintained behaviors may occur in order to get something or get rid of something. A child who covers his ears and hums may be trying to get rid of the sound of fluorescent lights. A child who sucks her thumb may enjoy the feeling of sucking her thumb.
When you are stumped about why your child continues to “do that,” ask yourself, what is he getting out of it? What is he able to get or get rid of? Could it be escape, attention, access, or sensory?