Functions of Behavior

Have you every watched a child throwing a tantrum and thought to yourself W.T.F.? Well, so have Behavior Analysts, “WTF”, “What is the Function”? Behavior Analysts try to figure out what the function of the behavior is, what is the child gaining from a behavior as disruptive as a tantrum. Is the child gaining anything from throwing the tantrum? And if the child is gaining something, why would they stop?

Before we work to put a stop to problem behaviors such as tantrums, we need to understand the function or purpose of the behavior. Is the child throwing the tantrum to get out of a chore? Then the function is likely escape. Is the child throwing the tantrum to get a stuffed animal from the toy aisle after you said “no”? Then the function is access to likely access to tangibles. Is the child throwing the tantrum because you were on the phone and your kid wanted you to watch his magic show? Then the function is likely attention.

Even though we are observing one behavior, a tantrum, we are actually looking at several different functions or reasons for throwing the tantrum. One kid was asked to complete a task, another was told they couldn’t have the toy they wanted, and the other couldn’t get his mom’s attention. These children immediately threw tantrums in hopes of getting the end result that they each want.

Did the child that was asked to clean his room throw such a loud and disruptive tantrums that his mother became overwhelmed and felt it was easier to just clean his room herself? Then his tantrum served its purpose to get him out of an undesirable task (escape). Or the kid that asked his mom for a toy in the toy aisle and she said “no”, was his tantrum in public so embarrassing that the mom decided the easiest thing to do was give in and just buy the toy? Then his tantrum served its purpose to get him that toy (access to tangibles). How about the kid that wanted his mom to watch his new magic trick but she was in the middle of a phone call. Was his tantrum so loud that she could no longer hear the caller and decided to hang up and watch the magic trick? Then his tantrum served its purpose and got him his mom’s undivided attention (attention).

These parents were able to stop the tantrum, but unknowingly taught their child how to get what they want, by throwing a tantrum the next time they find themselves in a similar scenario. The child is only learning from their environment, they most likely would not resort to the tantrums if they knew it would not result in their desired outcome. These children likely have a history of getting what they want by throwing tantrums and it is unlikely they will stop this pattern of behavior. Once, we have identified the function of the problem behaviors, we will be able to develop strategies to break these patterns. Look out for our next blog talking about keeping your kids occupied during their time off of school.

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