Inside: Learn the history behind the “4 Functions of Behavior” and the many flaws of trying to apply this principle to all IEP students.

In the field of psychology and behavior analysis, it is commonly understood that every behavior has a purpose or a function. Teachers and others participating in ABA call this the “4 functions of behavior.”

Understanding the function of behavior can help individuals and professionals identify the underlying reasons why a behavior occurs and develop effective strategies for modifying or managing that behavior. But, as an advocate who has attended more manifestation meetings than I can count, I see this 4 functions of behavior approach to be quite flawed.

child and 4 functions of behavior
Skinner’s 4 Functions of Behavior are oversimplified.

If parents (and teachers!) have a better understanding of the four functions of behavior, the history behind the philosophy, and the many flaws, you can be a better advocate for a child exhibiting undesirable behaviors.

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Who Developed the 4 Functions of Behavior?

The four functions of behavior were first identified by B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist who is known for his pioneering work in behaviorism.

These four functions of behavior are still widely used today in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) and are often overused to oversimplify the underlying reasons for challenging behaviors in individuals with developmental and behavioral disorders.

Let’s dig in.

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4 Functions of Behavior

There are four main functions of behavior, which are as follows:

  1. Sensory Stimulation: Behaviors that are performed to gain sensory input or stimulation, such as rocking back and forth, tapping or clicking, or repeatedly touching objects. These behaviors can be a form of self-stimulation or self-soothing.
  2. Escape: Behaviors that are performed to escape or avoid a situation or activity that is perceived as unpleasant, uncomfortable, or undesirable. It’s important to remember that this can include escaping a task that you are unable to do, such as schoolwork.
  3. Attention: Behaviors that are performed to gain attention from others, such as talking loudly, making disruptive noises, or engaging in attention-seeking behaviors like interrupting others, can be considered attention-seeking behaviors. These behaviors are performed in order to receive social interaction or attention from others and can be either positive or negative attention. And, attention seeking may mean that the child desires for the adult to further probe and figure out what is going on–a cry for help, not just a reprimand.
  4. Tangibles: Behaviors that are performed to gain access to tangible items or preferred activities.

It is important to note that behaviors can have multiple functions and that the function of a behavior can vary from person to person or from situation to situation.

Identifying the function of a behavior can be a critical step in developing effective interventions or strategies for modifying that behavior.

One of the many flaws of FBAs is that teams don’t go deep enough into determining the root cause. Most of the time, that is a lacking skill set.

And, many times, behavior plans have worthless rewards like “more iPad time” and does not address teaching the lacking skill set.

4 functions of behavior.

Flaws of the 4 Principles of Behavior

While the four functions of behavior are useful in understanding the reasons behind challenging behaviors, there are also some limitations and potential flaws in this principle:

  1. Limited scope: The four functions of behavior do not cover every possible reason for a behavior. Other factors such as genetics, environment, and cognition can also play a role in behavior.
  2. Overgeneralization: The principle of the four functions of behavior may lead to overgeneralization and assuming that all behaviors can be classified into one of these four categories. However, individual behaviors can have multiple functions and be influenced by a variety of factors.
  3. Lack of individualization: While the four functions of behavior can provide a starting point for understanding behavior, it is important to individualize interventions to address the unique needs and circumstances of each person.
  4. Ignores positive reinforcement: The four functions of behavior tend to focus on negative reinforcement (escape or avoidance) and punishment (access to tangible items or activities). However, positive reinforcement can also play a significant role in shaping behavior.
  5. Ignores Lacking Skills: Many kids (Ross Greene would argue all kids) exhibit negative behaviors because they lack the skill sets to respond appropriately. Skinner mentions none of this, and many IEP teams ignore the concept. Teach the lacking skills, and most of the time negative behaviors will fade.

While the four functions of behavior can be useful tools in understanding behavior, they should not be seen as a complete explanation or a one-size-fits-all approach to behavior management.

4 Functions of Behavior and ABA

The four functions of behavior were first identified in the context of behaviorism and applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is a controversial and therapeutic approach that uses these principles to change behavior. I’ve addressed the many flaws of FBAs and behaviorism, as pertains to IEPs, in another article.

Understanding the underlying function of a behavior can help professionals to design appropriate interventions and supports to address the behavior effectively.

For example, teachers can use this knowledge to modify classroom environments and teaching strategies to prevent problem behaviors or promote positive behavior in their students. Social workers can use it to develop individualized treatment plans for clients.

While there is some value in providing students with rewards and positive reinforcement in some situations, ABA should never, ever be the only idea considered if a child is exhibiting negative behaviors.

Teach the skill or accommodate for the lack of a skill. Punishing a child for lacking a skill, or forcing them through their interoception should never be done.

This is where I find many IEP teams miss the mark. For example, replace the concept of “seeking attention” to “seeking a connection” and see what that does for your perspective on this.

Different, isn’t it?

4 Functions of Behavior PDF

Here you go, if you want to print the 4 functions of behavior chart.

Please also read these articles about behavior.

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