Every behavior has a function. Last spring, a client’s Mom showed me her son’s “report card” from a very reputable preschool. The teacher had given the 2 ½ year old boy “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” marks for most of the expected developmental skills even though I have seen him demonstrate these abilities. Then I noticed where the teacher had written “he aggresses towards others for no reason.” Every behavior has a function. At the time of this report card, this child had limited verbal communication and a recent diagnosis of autism. Rather than verbally request help, he would cry, yell and/or throw the source of frustration. When someone took an object he wanted, he would hit or bite the source of his frustration. Was he being “bad”? Every behavior has a function. We live in a world where if a child throws something, we take it away. If a child aggresses toward someone, we isolate them (time out). If something could be dangerous or could break, we remove it from the child’s environment. Sure – this provides a quick and easy solution, but are we TEACHING the child anything? Teachable moments present themselves constantly. Use those opportunities to teach the child. Every behavior has a function. By now you’ve probably noticed my mantra. It’s true and we must be cognizant of it, especially if we work with children with communication deficits. The child who aggresses rather than “gives up” shows me that he will persist when his needs are not met. That is a positive indicator for improved expressive language. The child mentioned above was using behavior to communicate his wants/needs and became frustrated when those needs were not met. I would feel exactly the same way. Every behavior has a function. Here are the four main functions:
Escape/Avoidance: The individual behaves in order to get out of doing something he/she does not want to do.
Attention Seeking: The individual behaves to get focused attention from parents, teachers, siblings, peers, or other people that are around them.
Seeking Access to Materials: The individual behaves in order to get a preferred item or participate in an enjoyable activity.
Sensory Stimulation: The individual behaves in a specific way because it feels good to them.
As parents, teachers, and therapists, we must not be hasty to write something off as “just a behavior” without carefully considering the function. Removing objects and people from the environment is not a solution unless you plan on the child spending his time in an empty room by himself. Determine the function and then develop a plan. Teach the child a replacement behavior; provide the child with supports; set the child up for success and celebrate the heck out of steps in the desired direction.
“FOR NO REASON”? There is always a reason!
Donna Rowan Culley is the owner of RNH and is a speech language pathologist. Donna is passionate about helping children with a diagnosis of autism.