WTF (What The Function)

Why is my kid acting out like that? Why is she behaving so badly?! What is up with these kids?! Why can’t I figure this sh!t out?! At some point we have all had these thoughts, so, in an effort to ease any frustration let me walk you through why behaviours happen.

Behaviour analysts look at what the individual gets out of behaving the way they do, what is the payoff for a behaviour? All behaviours can be categorized into 4 functions: attention, escape from something we find aversive, access to a desired item, or sensory seeking, we like the feeling of something.

So what? Let’s take a closer look at each function, what it means, how to change your response to that behaviour and replacement behaviours:

What this means: Doing what we need to do in order to have someone look at us, talk to us, give us affection. Ever had your child look at you, do something inappropriate and smile? When you are on the phone, or cooking dinner, suddenly your child is doing everything they shouldn’t be?

For some children being told “no, stop” can be just as reinforcing as being told “great job cleaning up your toys” for some children any adult attention is good attention, regardless of the context. For others, the sheer enjoyment may come from seeing you get mad and angry and give your “you do that one more time” look.

How to deal: If it’s a reaction you think they are looking for, don’t give it to them! Pretend it isn’t happening. If you are trying to do something, like cook dinner or talk on the phone, set them up with a ‘highly preferred activity’ so they will want to do that. Alternatively, include them in whatever activity you are doing and make them your helper, such as making dinner, or doing the laundry. Give attention for any and all good behaviour so they may not feel the need to get your attention at other times.

What this means: Engaging in a behaviour to get out doing something we don’t want to do. This can be an instruction, such as telling your child to do their homework. Or, you tell your toddler to clean up her toys and she has a meltdown. It’s homework time and your child requests “5 more minutes of TV” 6 times.

How to deal: Follow through on your instruction – make sure they do what you’ve asked them to do. This may require a little hand-over-hand prompting for younger children, or you may need to wait out the tantrum and then try cleaning up again (and maybe again), until it is done. Don’t let your child’s behaviour get them out of doing what they’ve been asked to do. You may need to add some motivation to the activity.

Use “first/then” statements to help motivate children. If you know that your child doesn’t like cleaning up toys, then have a preferred activity to follow: “First clean up the toys, then snack time”. It’s the same story for older kids – remember “no TV until your homework is finished”. Same principal. First do homework, then watch TV. Use the things that your children like as motivators for those behaviours rather than letting them have access to everything all the time. Also be careful what you plan before telling them to do something. Don’t allow them to watch TV before homework. For example, avoid the struggle by having them do homework after dinner and before TV.

Access to a tangible item
What this means: Doing what we need to do in order to access something we want, such as food, toys, and activities. Tangible means something you can hold in your hand, something physical. You’ve told your child “no” to a really great toy they want you to buy and then starts screaming at the top of her lungs in the middle of the store. Your child requests ice cream for breakfast, and nothing else.

How to deal: First off, don’t give in!!! Especially after you have said no. We have days where we just can’t take it – so I will give a little leeway and say maybe it’s ok to give in after the first no, if you decided you just can’t handle this today but don’t after the second no. Don’t let this be an excuse to always giving in, it should be the exception NOT the rule.

Tell your child when they can have what they want. If you are in a store and they are screaming bloody murder to get something, tell them they can add it to their birthday wish list. If your child wants ice cream for breakfast, tell her that she can have it at dinner time.

Give choices of 2 other alternatives. “No, you can’t have ice cream for breakfast but you can have cereal, or toast with peanut butter”. “No, you can’t have the iPad now, but we can read a book or play with your action figures”. Giving choices gives a child a sense of control over their environment.

Last point here, redirect, redirect, redirect. And no negotiating with your child.

Sensory seeking
What this means: We do something because we like the feeling of it. Your child jumps on the couch because she likes the way her body feels. Your toddler smears food all over their highchair tray because it feels nice.

How to deal: This is the hardest one to change, and we usually advise not to change these behaviours but to offer more appropriate ways to evoke the same feeling. A trampoline is a more appropriate to jump on than a couch. Smearing shaving gel or finger paint is more appropriate than smearing food.

To think about: Stop and look at your behaviour, your partner’s behaviour, or your children’s behaviour. What were they just trying to do there? What were they trying to get out of doing that behaviour?

Write to us with your parenting quandaries, we’re here for you!

Main image courtesy of Emily Winter

Written by: Jennifer Tysick-Frigault, M.ADS (ABA), BCBA


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