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What is Function Based Intervention?

What is function based intervention? We get a lot of questions about behavior, like, I have a child who bites or I have a child who hits/engages in tantrums. What should I do when my child does this? As Board Certified Behavior Analysts, our first step is to question why. Why does your child engage in those negative behaviors? A child might bite for a variety of different reasons. It’s really about the why. 

Why specifically is your child engaging in that behavior? What is that individual trying to tell us? I really don’t think your child wants to engage in those negative behaviors, but maybe they have limited communication skills or maybe they’ve learned something that’s incompatible with what they should be doing.

For instance, you know, if I’m finding something very difficult and I don’t know how to tell you that it’s very difficult, I might lash out. I might hit you or have a tantrum. What I’m trying to tell you is that it’s way too difficult. I’m trying to do that because I’m trying to escape the situation or I’m trying to avoid it. 

Alternatively, I have some learners who really don’t know how to engage in appropriate social interaction. They might be trying to get into a group at school and don’t know how to do that. They might push a child on the playground because they really want that child’s attention. It’s not because they’re malicious. They really just don’t know how to get into social play. So that might be a function of attention. 

What is Function in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)?

When we look at the topography of behavior, we need to look at what we call the function of behavior. All behavior is communication. It’s all trying to tell us something. The reason that a behavior keeps happening is because in some way, it’s working for the client. So it means that they’re getting what they want through this behavior. For instance, if they want a cookie and cry to get a cookie, then they’ll continue to cry to get that cookie. The function of their behavior was the cookie. 

There are a couple major functions that we talk about within ABA. The acronym is S.E.A.T, which stands for Sensory, Escape, Attention and Tangible. The four main reasons that somebody might engage in any challenging behaviors like biting, pinching, scratching, or tantruming is for them to get access to attention, a tangible, or get away from something (which is escape). There’s also sensory or automatic reinforcement, which just feels good. It’s automatically reinforcing just to engage in that behavior. 

What is Functional Assessment in ABA?

When someone asks, “my child is biting,”  or “my child is pinching, what should I do?” It doesn’t matter as much to us what that behavior looks like. Of course we’re going to track it. But what we’re really trying to find out is what is this behavior trying to say, or what’s the function of that behavior? One child could be biting for escape while another child could be biting for access to attention. The behaviors might look exactly the same and have two different functions or behaviors could look totally different and have the same function. That’s why we’re always looking at what this child is trying to say and how we can get into the root or the function of this behavior. 

When we treat the behavior as a symptom, we’re not getting to the function of it. We’re either putting a bandvaid on the behavior and either another behavior will pop up in its place or that behavior was never solved. It won’t go away. If I treated a behavior just based on the topography, but the behavior was for escape and I started letting them get out of task, then what they’re going to do is they’re actually going to engage in that behavior more. Or if they were engaging in behavior as a result of attention and then all of a sudden I gave them a bunch of attention for engaging in that negative behavior, they may engage in that negative behavior more because it’s getting them what they’re looking for. 

We really need to understand the reason for the function of the behavior so that we use function based intervention and not put a band aid on the skills to get them what they want. 

What is Function Based Intervention? 

So what is function based intervention and how do we go about it? We’ll start by defining the behavior and collecting some baseline data. Then we’ll get a functional behavior assessment done. That could look different depending on what the behavior is and what the environment is. So we’ll be asking the right questions and making theories of why this behavior is happening.

The next step will be to develop a treatment plan. That treatment plan will usually include some sort of functional communication training or replacement skill to replace that challenging behavior. Finally we’ll continue to monitor the child and collect data to see if our theory was correct and hopefully see the behavior decrease through intervention. 

In order to determine what is function based intervention, we need to define the function of behavior first. Grab our cheat sheet on the function of behavior by clicking the download button below!


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