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What’s the Function?

Why do we do the things we do? It’s a question that nearly everyone has asked at some point in their life. Of course, answering that question is part of our job as ABA practitioners! Before we intervene on any behavior, it’s necessary to know the why, or the function, behind that behavior so that we can provide another behavior that does the same thing. When we ask what the function of a behavior is, we’re attempting to find the root of a behavior, understand the motivation behind it, and make sure that the individuals we work with are finding the healthiest and safest ways to independently meet their needs. 

When we look at the function of behavior, we ascribe it to one of four umbrella categories:  

Escape or Avoidance: We want to get away from something, or we don’t want to do something. If we behave in a certain way, something will go away. 

Access to Tangible: We want something. If we behave in a certain way, we’ll get a thing that we want.  

Attention: We want other people to look at us or interact with us. If we behave a certain way, other people will pay attention to us. 

Automatic: Something about what we’re doing is inherently rewarding and doesn’t need other people for it to be nice. 

One or multiple of these categories interact to create the function, or the why, for the behavior. We then use this information to figure out what new behavior would work in the same way, or meet the same needs.  

This process occurs all the time in every day life. For example, babies learn that crying is a good way to get a parent’s attention, or to get food (among other things). As they grow and develop, they learn to say, “mama” which replaces crying by ensuring that the same need is met in a way that is easier for the child or “Baba” to ask for a bottle, thus ensuring that they can get what they want at that point in time rather than a parent having to guess. 

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