Functional Assessment: Determining Why Behavior Occurs

Our Method

The Discrepancy Model

Traditional ABA Functional Assessment

The Functional Assessment Sections (Instructions and Guidelines)

Our method of functional assessment takes into account developmental factors, phenomenology, systems theory, sensory and mental processing issues and other elements to a far greater degree than is typical in the field.   In fact, while some of the more advanced thinkers in the field of ABA have written about the importance of these factors, no systematic formula or manual has been published that incorporates these factors into a coherent method of Functional Analysis.  We have been doing that for years and we have considerable experience with it, as you will find here.

We believe that understanding of the developmental characteristics and capacities of the individual and the demands of the environment (this is where systems theory is very helpful), is the most efficient way of determining the best replacement behaviors.

Functional assessment determines why behavior probably occurs.  No one can ever know with 100% accuracy why an individual engages in a behavior, but the Law of Determinism applies – all behaviors occur for a reason.  Another way of saying this is that all behaviors have a function or use for that person – whether they are aware of it or not.  Functional analysis looks at factors that help us develop hypotheses of why behavior occurs (what their functions are).  Functional Assessment is the process we use to develop hypotheses.  Functional Analysis is a bit more involved and allows the Analyst to test the hypotheses for more accuracy.  Functional Analysis is a lengthy and expensive process, usually not warranted or practical in applied settings because it requires manipulation of the environment to turn behaviors on and off.  This may be ill-advised if the behavior under analysis is harmful to the individual or the environment.

Our Discrepancy Model

Even when we consider the complexity of behavior by taking into account developmental factors, phenomenology, systems theory, sensory and mental processing issues and other elements, determining the functions of individual behaviors is too myopic of a view.  The assumption is that somehow different behaviors under analysis are separate from each other – as if they not tied together by the totality of the person under analysis.  Assessment of individual behaviors without consideration of developmental, mental, biophysiological characteristics and the phenomenological (subjective and intersubjective) experience of the individual often leads to treatment of behaviors and not the person.

Determining the functional characteristics of behavior is indeed an important pursuit, but a more holistic analysis can emerge when we step back and look at what the environment in which the individual functions requires, and what developmental capacities and adaptive capabilities that person can bring to bear in that environment.  When the environment expects skills and developmental capacities that the individual does not yet possess, we have conditions that make behavior problems more likely.

Therefore, we look for the discrepancy between what the environment expects and what the individual is capable of.  The equation can look like this:

If Environmental Expectations (EE) > Developmental and Adaptive Skills then Potential for Behavior Problems

Therefore, if the Environmental Expectations are greater than the individual’s developmental skills and capacities to adapt, than the lacking developmental skills and capacities are the most likely reasons behavior problems occur, and those skills are the best ones to target for teaching.  John Stewart, in his book ‘Beyond Time Out‘ has a discrepancy model that looks at behavior in this way as well.

Example 1:

A reading class is at the 7th grade level.  The text and the teaching rate are at 7th grade expectancies.  But the Student reads at the 2nd grade level.  This creates a discrepancy that makes avoiding more likely – whatever form it may take.

But let’s go into this a bit more deeply.  Perhaps this Student has exceptional emotional skills.  Perhaps she has the ego strength to face her reading delays and does not mind seeking remediation, tutoring, etc.  She is emotionally resilient, and responds to this situation by trying harder and overcoming her reading delays.  These emotional capacities may add up in a way that there is less of a discrepancy between what the environment requires and what developmental skills this Student has, and therefore, she is less likely to exhibit behavioral maladaptation.

But if this Student lacked both the reading and the emotional skills that would work in this environment, we have higher potential for behavioral maladaptation.  Analysis would have to cover thoughtfully the underlying processing or learning history issues underlying the reading delays, as well as the emotional skills the Student lacks.  Replacement behaviors would of course center on teaching both reading and emotional skills, but the goals and objectives set forth would come from guesswork if the underlying mental processing issues involved in this individual’s reading delays were not equally analyzed, and the psychodynamic (yes, psychodynamic) emotional developmental issues were not also analyzed equally.

Example 2:

The Student lunch room is loud and there are usually people walking around.  It requires individuals to be able to tolerate and organize their perceptions of the environment in order to function adequately in it.  A Student with autism experiences significant issues with auditory figure to ground perception and auditory modulation, so he cannot make sense of or focus in on any single person’s voice and he cannot habituate to the level of noise so that it becomes tolerable.  The phenomenological experience for him is cacophony – loud, impinging and disorganizing and possibly painful auditory confusion.  What sounds like moderately loud and tolerable talking to us, sounds like the equivalent of 150 people banging pots and pans together.  Whereas we can filter out voices we choose not to hear and tune in to those we want to hear, he cannot, and the environment provides no auditory means of guiding him.  Whereas we might initially experience the lunchroom as loud, we can habituate to it and modulate it so that we can get used to it quickly.

Adding to the problem is that this same individual experiences slow processing of motion perception.  If objects move quickly, he sees them in a strobe-like, unconnected fashion – a slide show rather than a movie.  He gets quite frightened because he does not know which direction people are moving in.  If they are not moving in neat and organized and slowly moving lines, he can easily lose track of their directionality and fears being knocked over.  This is why he never ventures out in to the middle of the playground where people are moving quickly to and fro and a ball can come flying from anywhere.

In this situation, it is clear how anxiety provoking this situation is, and how likely it is that this Student will have to find some way to cope or with or avoid the situation.  Coping might involve clinging to an adult or some other guide, hugging the wall or fence, or avoiding the environment altogether by acting up when requested to go inside.  Intervention strategies implied for the auditory issues would perhaps involve habituation strategies to improve the person’s capacity to modulate the noise; perhaps the use of a compensation strategy such as headphones or ear buds; or perhaps the choice of eating in a quieter place.  Intervention strategies implied for the visual issues would perhaps involve some of the same strategies used for the visually impaired.

Traditional Operant Functional Assessment

The traditional ‘operant’ functional analysis focused almost exclusively on overt behavior and environmental events.  Cognitions were excluded because they were thought to be misleading or not adequately “knowable.”  The “applied behavior analysis” approach focuses on antecedents and consequences that are useful for understanding and intervening with behavior.  However, as John Stewart pointed out – the field does not yet fully recognize them.

Table: Characteristics of Applied Behavior Analysis (from Kazdin; 2008)

  • Focus on overt behaviors
  • Focus on behaviors of applied (social or clinical) significance
  • Assess behavior through direct observation, as in counting frequency of responses
  • Assess behavior continuously over time (e.g., several days per week) to identify patterns of behavior that occur with or without interventions in place or under various environmental or stimulus conditions (e.g., presence of another person, different situations
  • Search for marked intervention effects that make a clear difference to the everyday functioning of the individual
  • Focus on one or a small number of individuals at a time
  • Use environmental (and observable) events to influence the frequency of behavior
  • Identify, evaluate, and demonstrate the factors (e.g., events) that are responsible for change.

According to Kazdin:

Interventions within applied behavior analysis focus on antecedents and consequences that can be used to alter behavior.  Cognitive processes and concepts such as beliefs, perceptions, and thoughts do not usually play a role in the interventions that are used in applied settings.  Cognitive processes may be quite important and indeed often serve as antecedents that contribute to problems.  For example, what people say to themselves may promote certain kinds of behaviors in themselves and others.   Also, cognitive processes may be important consequences, that is, what people say to themselves may influence their own behavior.  Interventions based on operant behavior usually focus on behavior in settings in everyday life and on the environmental events before, after, and during the behavior that can be used to achieve behavior change.

I have several problems with this:

First, this might be subtle and maybe even unintended, but when behaviorists discuss changing behavior, they often convey an instrumental view of relationships.  People change other people’s behavior.  That’s supposed to be our job.  The importance of attunement and trust are almost never discussed because they cannot be measured by simple arithmetic means. The subjective experience of the person whose behavior is supposed to be changed is acknowledged, but not emphasized.  Subjective experience is generally not considered a viable target for intervention.

  • There is very little that can be found in the behavioral literature regarding how bio-neuro-developmental processes affect the subjective experiences of individuals and those that love, teach, care for, or befriend them.
  • There has been no technology developed in the behavioral literature regarding the assessment of perception and “central coherence,” which is so basic and foundational in the autonomous control of behavior.
  • There is too much emphasis placed on language controlling thinking.  Much of neural processing is not available to consciousness or the conscious manipulation of language ad thought – even autonomously.  There is an abundance of hard evidence in the attachment, infant mental health, developmental, and psychiatric literature that much of social behavior is under the control of procedural memories.

In all fairness, behavioral psychology expanded into the realm of subjective experience when learning and cognitive processes were integrated into the science.  Thoughts and learning styles were taken into account and became subject to intervention.  This expansion has been called social learning theory” (Bandura), and “cognitive behavior modification” by other theorists.

Kazdin warns of oversimplification, advising against simple linear associations between environmental events and behavior.  Yet the recommendation for ‘[searching] for marked intervention effects that make a clear difference to the everyday functioning of the individual…’ would be pure guesswork in the case of the Student with autism in the example above without knowledge of the underlying processing issues required to navigate this environment.  How much time would be wasted?; how expensive would this be?; how inefficient would the process be if carried out by individuals willfully ignorant of the processing issues involved and the subsequent subjective experience of the person.  Do we think that since we understand the processing issues and have come up with sure-fire, guaranteed to work intervention strategies that this individual would trust us?

The field of ABA is nowhere near the point where attachment relationships can be assessed or remediated.  There is not yet a technology in ABA for teaching the tools of learning or for teaching the elements of dynamic intelligence (the ability to function in fluid and spontaneous settings and long chains of ongoing interaction) or intersubjectivity (the ability to form ideas about other people’s subjective experiences and intentions).  We welcome others to test our methods and to advance them under scientific scrutiny.  We believe that there is enormous evidence basis for all of the considerations we use in analysis, but the method itself requires further replication.  At this point, the would-be analyst can choose to stick with the traditional aspects of Function Analysis that we retain in our method and ignore the enhancements, or to try and test with reason and care, how the enhancements can improve the process and make intervention more efficient.

The Functional Assessment Sections

In Part I, you gave the behavior or behavioral class a name in the section entitled Referral Concerns.

Description

This section describes the forms that the behavior takes in objective terms.  One measure of “objectivity” has to do with “inter-observer agreement.”  What that means is that more than one person can see the behavior and then agree on the description.  For instance, two people might witness the behavior and not be able to agree that it represents “a bad attitude,” “manipulative,” “attention-seeking,” or even “angry,” etc., but they will probably agree that the Student slams doors and knocks items off the table went Guides try to set limits on his behavior.   Behaviors described must be:

Specific: The topography of the behavior is described in terms of what it is and what it is not.

Descriptions of behavior are different than hypotheses of behavior.  Descriptions of behavior have to do with the observable physical and environmental forms that the behavior takes.  Hypotheses of behavior on the other hand, speculate on the function of the behavior.  Functions of behavior are detailed below (Functional Results).

  • Observable: The behavior must be registerable in one of the physical senses (seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted, etc.) of the observer.  Importantly, the behavior should be described so that the reader has a clear idea of when the behavior begins, and when it ends.
  • Measurable: If the behavior is observable it should be measurable (details about measurement are given in the section on MEASUREMENT, above).
  • Have the highest potential for inter-observer agreement.

Measurement

Parameters of measurement and what they mean are described above.

What you will see in the Functional Analysis Measurement section is a table (below).  As you have seen, there are a number of choices you have for quantitatively representing a behavior.  There are only four listed in the table on the template, but you can change any of them, or add or delete rows if necessary.

Please do not leave rows blank.  If you need to, delete the row.

Frequency:

Duration:

Intensity:

Setting(s):

 

Adding or Deleting Lines (Rows) to a Table 

Adding a Line: Point the mouse cursor to the right of the row just above where you would like to add an extra row.  Press the RETURN key.

Subtracting a Line: Point the mouse cursor to the left of the row you want to delete.   RIGHT-CLICK.  Select DELETE ROWS.

Antecedent Analysis

Antecedents include the list of known events and conditions that come before a behavior and that are somehow relative to it.  Since we work a great deal with the perceptions, histories and episodic memories, the thoughts, beliefs, and capacities of the people involved, as well as the context of the immediate, past, future, and cultural environment – we place great emphasis on antecedent analysis.

What Antecedents Analysis Is

Antecedent analysis is about estimating not only the “likelihood” of behavior, but all of the important contributing factors – including the consequences specific behaviors typically produce and that may be “functionally related” to motivation.  By definition, an antecedent must exert some influence on the behavior, because if it does not, you are simply confusing unrelated events that happen before the behavior occurred.  The validity of the factors that you identify as antecedents has to do with how effectively they predict behavior.

Below, is a description of how consequences affect behavior.  Antecedents are related to consequences in that most of the time they somehow affect a person’s anticipation of what will happen when they do something.

Example

Neil tends to tantrum when his Teacher asks him to get off the swings.  Now, Neil has no concept of what a long time or a short time is on the swings — all he seems to know is that swinging starts when he becomes interested and wants to get on, and swinging stops when he’s tired of swinging and wants to get down.  This is pretty true of all of Neil’s play behavior – because most of his play is open-ended.  For those developmentalists out there, it’s pretty much like this for the first 24 months at least.

It is easier to get a Student to transition when there is a clear ending to his play such as finishing a puzzle, getting to a certain level on a video game, waiting until a natural break in the work occurs, etc. — but with open-ended play, there is no natural ending.  Because there is no natural ending to swinging other than a loss of interest, the Teacher’s cue, “Time to come inside…” triggers protest behavior.

It is a mistake to think that the cue is the cause of the problem, although it certainly appears to be a trigger for the protest.  It is also a mistake to assume (as we shall see below), that being asked or having to get off the swings is the reason he cried, because theoretically, Neil has other choices (he could ask for “more;” he could accept the deal gracefully…), or, the environment could be changed (a counter could be substituted for a verbal prompt).

Good antecedent analysis would look at all of the possible factors that contribute to Neil’s resistance to getting off the swings and/or that result in tantrums when others ask him to do so.  Factors would include those that cannot be observed directly, but that are known or knowable nonetheless.  For instance, we know that Neil lacks the developmental abilities to judge by context what is a reasonable amount of time to be on the swings;[2] we know that he doesn’t show the ability or the practice of referencing events that should show him that people are getting ready to leave, or the events that lead his Teacher to know that it is a good time to stop swinging (i.e. clock time, knowledge of other things that have to happen and the amount of time left for them, etc.).  So he doesn’t prepare himself for leaving the swings and he experiences cues to leave as unwelcomed surprises, no matter how many times the routine is repeated.

We also know that Neil copes with his negative feelings like a younger Student (e.g., tantrums, refusals, difficulty or inability to engage in reasonable problem solving; inflexibility and self-referencing only [egocentrism]), and because of this, people have been afraid of asking him to do things he doesn’t want to do.  These are all parts of Neil’s current development, and part of what precedes any current demand to get off the swings.

Good antecedent analysis helps us develop interventions that work with Neil’s development – not against it.  This is very important.  The success and failure of interventions often depends upon how well we understand the Student’s [developmentally/experientially-based] worldview; the way the Student perceives [or fails to perceive] the situation or context; the emotional state of the Student and how that affects his or her thinking at the moment, etc.

It follows from this that people do not react to stimuli or reality per se – they react to their perception of reality.  PERCEPTION COUNTS and you cannot get there using operant theory alone.

So, ignorant of Neil’s worldview and way of making meaning of the information around him, we might:

Offer Neil a reward for transitioning off the swings appropriately???

What could be wrong with that?

  • Something has been added to the environment that will now have to be removed for generalization to take place.  Not only is this an unhealthy form of dependence, generalization is unlikely, because Neil only knows that the reason to get off the swing is to get a reward.  He is not being taught about the time limits, how to reference that others are waiting or the other social signs that he should prepare himself for leaving.
  • The emphasis is on complying with a rule, not on understanding the social context, exigencies or the reasons for the rule.  Granted, such a discussion or lesson may not be possible or productive for Neil.  But some Students are very sensitive to power plays, and when they see that this becomes a matter of compliance – cooperation goes down and purposeful, more determined opposition can result.

 Use a Timer or “Five, Two, One Minute” warnings.

What could be wrong with that?

  • This ignores Neil’s attentional characteristics and his life experience with and understanding of time.  The Staff continues to wonder why these warnings don’t work.

They should look at their own developmental histories with time.  Firstly – we adults know what 5 minutes or a minute actually is on a watch or clock.

Also after years of adhering to and working with clock time, we have also internalized a rough “feeling” of about how long those increments are.  (We also know that when we’re doing things we love – we feel time go faster and the opposite is true of things we don’t like).

The critical factor is how often we switch our attention from what we are doing to the timepiece.  Neil may never look at the timer.  If he did, he may not know what it means or what he is looking at.  Later on that day he might take the same timer that was used on the playground, but is now being used to help the Students wait for the cookies to be baked – turn the knob to “0” and claim the cookies are ready.  In other words, he has no idea that what the timer actually shows is duration of time.

This is what a Student that really understands duration would do with a timer or warnings.  When the time is far off, he would reference the time piece or the warning person less often.  He would do it more often as he “feels” the time approaching.  He would also hurry up or slow down based on how things unfold in the given amount of time, or make decisions about where to stop an ongoing project.  Finally, he might “negotiate” with this pressuring him to be ready, in order to make sure that he can leave the previous activity in a way satisfactory to him.

That’s how we do it.  With our life experience with time, we switch our attention to the timepiece as often as necessary – generally more so as the end time approaches.   When we don’t we get in trouble and end up being late.

When Neil receives a “warning,” he may simply return to the blissful state of swinging.  He may have some idea that the timer or the warnings means leaving is imminent, but he doesn’t know how time feels so he just goes back to the Zen of swinging and is just as surprised and annoyed at the final cues as he would have been without a timer or warnings.

We also prepare ourselves and we let others know what we need in order to transition (“OK, give me another minute, I’m not done with this one yet.”)

A better way is to work with Neil’s development and understanding.  Neil might be likely to get off the swings if he is given a new way to understand how swinging ends.  The Adults might count backwards from 10 (“OK Neil, 10 more times.  Ready? 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1- Wheeeeee!).

This doesn’t even mention the considerations of normal emotional development that factor in here.  Neil has a tantrum when he experiences the disappointment if having to do something he doesn’t want to do, and this reaction is typical.  IT COULD EASILY BE A MISTAKE TO ENGINEER THE ENVIRONMENT SO WELL AND MAKE IT SO STATIC THAT HE KNOWS PERFECTLY WELL WHEN TO GET OFF THE SWINGS AND WHEN AND HOW TO DO EVERYTHING ELSE.  Even if we do work with his conceptual development – we can only make the demand fairer.  Neil’s emotional development will require more and different types of work – probably through changes in how we react and help him through it – or consequences.

Some have described this approach as “antecedent control,” but this implies that the motivation comes from adults being in control.  We want to get away from always thinking the answer is adult control and Student compliance.  Instead, what we are after here is changing the Student’s perception and understanding which gives the Student more control, and doing it that way, means he’s much more likely to “cooperate” (as opposed to “comply”).

Setting Conditions

Setting Conditions (also called Setting Events”) are feelings, perceptions, preconceptions, etc. that interact with the environment to stimulate behavior.

A “setting condition” is any aspect of the individual or his or her experience that makes a behavior more or less likely.  Unlike “triggers” they can be temporally distant from the problem.  Examples include the Student’s age, developmental stage, physiological state, a history of conditioning, and so forth.  Many if not most of the setting conditions that we identify have something to do with levels of thinking and perception.

Here are some common ones:

  • A lack of concepts of time and duration (the setting condition) often functions as a setting condition for problems with transitions between activities (the problem)
  • Bad sleep habits that have developed over time now make compliance with bedtime less likely.
  • Negative experience in school makes getting on the bus less likely or refusing more likely.
  • A history of health problems might make willingness to cooperate with toilet training less likely or refusal to sit on the toilet more likely.
  • A history of traditional discreet trial training, where natural communications requesting escape were ignored and the behavior escalated to more intense escape motivated behaviors — makes the use of highly intense escape motivated behaviors more likely – even when the stakes aren’t high.
  • A history of conflict between Teacher and Student that has led to a state where mild conflicts have a tendency to rapidly escalate into major conflicts.

Keeping in mind that you can only measure behavior that exists, you cannot measure anything that is “less likely.”  Traditionally we talk about things being “more likely” to happen.  However, when talking about setting conditions, you need not worry about this.  You are giving background to describe how current environmental events interact with previous learning and individual characteristics.

Internal or Historical Setting Conditions

In this section, talk about characteristics of the Student and his or her learning (experiential) history that can be reasonably tied to the current behavior.  Traditional behaviorists refer to a concept of “history of reinforcement,” but we look beyond this to what a person does not understand or has not been exposed to as making a behavior more or less likely.

Of primary relevance are health and developmental factors, previous experiences, previous feelings, and how the behavior evolved from one thing into another.  Temperament and mood are often setting conditions for behavior.  A tendency to prefer static systems over dynamic ones is another example that helps you predict behavior.  Much of this, you have described above, so you can simply make reference to factors that you have discussed more at length in the above sections.

Current Environmental Setting Conditions

In this section, talk about characteristics of the environment and how they influence current behavior.  For instance, Teacher may have a newborn baby attends to occupy a lot of her time, and this has caused an increase in certain behaviors designed to compel Teacher’s attention; the playground has a lot of children running to and fro, and your Student is afraid of noise and unexpected offense, which has led to a pattern of withdrawing from play, etc.

Look for the volume and amount of sensory input within an environment, the requirements for fluid and dynamic adapting, whether or not the environment changes frequently, the conceptual and language demands, etc.

Establishing Operations and Motivating Operations

These are behavioral terms that describe conditions other people use to manipulate or arrange environmental conditions to influence the likelihood of behavior.   The terms are used interchangeably.  Since they are factors that alter the effects of a consequence, I could easily discuss them in the section on Consequent Functions of Behavior.  In the discussion of the Functions of Behavior below, we will go into more detailed discussion about how the process of learning transforms consequences into antecedents.

Basically, once an individual learns that a behavior produces a given consequence, the learner now carries around the knowledge as an antecedent to the same or similar circumstances.  So if I’ve touched fire before and burned myself as a consequence, I remember it.  My memory of this is a part of me the next time I see fire, is part of the antecedent now, and influences my likelihood of touching or not touching the fire.
I have also learned that approaching some forms of fire, such as a fireplace, can make me warmer than I am and feel good.  Where the consequent functions of Establishing or Motivating Operations comes in, is when we alter the value of that consequence.  So, on a cold day, when I am cold, the value of that fireplace to me is higher than it would be on a hot day.  On a hot day, being in front of the fireplace would be unlikely.  The fire on a hot day is not reinforcing my behavior of sitting next to the fireplace.  And, if someone wanted me to be more likely to sit by the fireplace, he or she might keep the temperature down.  In the same way, someone who is full may not be very motivated by food.  Someone that has done the same thing over and over and is bored by it, is unlikely to respond to the same thing, but perhaps more likely to respond to a change or novelty.

In the behavioral literature, establishing/motivating operations are often associated with ‘states of deprivation,’ specifically, the deprivation of reinforcement.  A hungry person is more likely to respond to food as a reinforcer than one that is satiated on food.  Keep in mind that we are talking about instances or cases where we have seen that, ‘consequence Y’ reinforces [maintains or increases the likelihood of] ‘behavior X.’

It is easy to see how a Student that has eaten may not be motivated to work for food, and therefore, being full is an antecedent “setting event” that you should be aware of if you’re going to use food as a ‘reinforcer’ in your intervention.  In such a case, being full or sated suppresses or diminishes the value of food as a reinforcer, whereas being hungry might increase food’s value.

In your examination of the environment, you would want to look for those things that:

  • Previously established relationships between behaviors and reinforcing consequences (“reinforcers” can be natural consequences or “added” as in ‘positive reinforcement’ schemes).
  • How factors within the individual and within the environment serve to alter the value of those reinforcers
  • You look at …

…    what the Student really wants; what she’s really interested in; what her behavior seems motivated to produce (reinforcement) from the environment (see Behavioral Functions below)

…    what tends to make those same things more likely (what factors make the reinforcer more valuable)

…     what tends to make those same things less likely (what factors make the reinforcer less valuable)

Triggers

These are the observable events that take place directly prior to the problem, and the temporal proximity of the events implies causation.  In traditional functional analysis of behavior, “antecedents” were synonymous with “triggers.”  This was because the requirement was that you had to be able to observe the antecedent.  It is superficial and ridiculous to believe that you can observe all the real antecedents of a problem, unless you assume that a person is a mindless blank slate that approaches environments with no preferences, predilections, or expectations.  This bears repeating: feelings, perceptions, preconceptions, etc. interact with the environment to stimulate behavior.

Functional Results

The primary goal of traditional Applied Behavior Analysis is to form a hypothesis of why behaviors occur.  No one can ever know with absolute certainty why a behavior occurs every time, so the only thing possible is to develop a hypothesis.  Since we know that behaviors produce consequences, we call this section “Functional Results.”  There are ‘Functions of’ certain characteristics that are within the Student or the environment that have a lot to do with why a person is predisposed towards behavior.  And then there are the traditional “Functions for” that represent hypotheses about why the individual engages in the behavior under assessment

Behavioral Functions

The Function of a behavior is “why” the behavior occurs (Functions of’ or Traditional ABA functions of behavior) or, what makes this person predisposed towards this behavior (Setting Conditions and ‘Functions of,’ both of which yield clues as to what purpose the behavior serves).  We can never be 100% certain why anyone does anything – including ourselves.  The process of determining why is what Functional Assessment is all about.  But we cannot observe “why” a person does something.  We can only observe the things that he or she does, and we can draw inferences as to why they do them.  Therefore, our assessments of function are always “hypothetical” and tentative.  Data can show how reliable and valid the hypothesis is or is not.

Behavioral Forms[3]

The Form of a behavior describes the behavior itself.  Behavioral forms are described.  The description answers various “what?” questions.  Let’s look at a behavior that is typically poorly defined to see how important the description of behavioral form is…a tantrum.

Topography

  • What specific actions are involved?  What is often described as a “behavior” is usually a chain or series of actions that constitute an episode or occurrence of the behavior.
  • Did the tantrum begin with the whining, the stomping the feet, the yelling, the leaving the room and slamming the door, the aggression?
  • Does the tantrum include all or some of those things?
  • How do you know when it is over?

[Physical] forms of behavior are observable, whereas functions are not.  Physical forms of behavior are the actions people take, which can be observed and measured.

Thoughts as Behavioral Forms

As mentioned above, thoughts are actions as well, but they’re not observable externally.  Although we examine the relationships between perception and action, and we certainly hypothesize about the thinking that leads to behavior, we cannot measure thoughts accurately.[4]

Nevertheless – thoughts are actions.  Thoughts are actions that we simply do not carry out physically or overtly.  Skinner referred to thought as covert behavior and as a viable subject for analysis.

Do the following exercise – think [to yourself] about something – anything.  For the vast majority of us – thinking involves examining the contents of what’s going on in our heads, and what we “see” or “hear” in our ‘mind’s eye’ are actions we’re taking.  We tend to see what look like video clips in our mind – some vivid, some vague, some with sound and some without.[5]

Nevertheless, thoughts are internalized actions.  Human beings (mature ones with normal executive neurological function), have the advantage of being able to consider or think about actions and choose whether or not to perform them overtly.  Most animals, and impulsive human beings, generally do whatever they think.  Thinking and doing is for practical purposes – the same thing.  There is no mental rehearsal or stepwise imagining of behavior before the behavior occurs.

Functional Assessment of Thought

The field of “Cognitive/Behavioral Psychology” looks at thoughts as behaviors and counts and measures them as such.  In the type of functional assessment advocated throughout this document, perceptions and thoughts deeply influence behavior and cannot and should not be discounted.  Thoughts and perceptions are not mere equivalents of “history of learning.”  They have to do with the unique meaning each individual makes about what happens in the world.

But as far as Functional Assessment, thoughts are behavioral forms and do not answer the “why” of behavior.  They are yet another form of “what” is going on.

Functions of:

One unique feature of our method of functional analysis is that we distinguish “Functions of…” vs. “Functions for… (Traditional Functions, below)”  We are very concerned about the phenomenological experience of the individual.  We want to know how that individual perceives the environment – what events mean to him or her.  Here are some reasons why we the internal experience of the individual can be critical to assessment:

  • We do not operate on reality – we operate on our perception of reality – whether it is available to consciousness or not.[6]People perceive the same events differently.  Their perceptions are based not only on their sensory and cognitive equipment, but how their thoughts and expectations affect what they experience through their senses.  A corollary of this that the brain “sees” what it expects to see.”A good example would be to look at why someone does not follow a direction.  Did the individual hear or process the sound properly enough to develop a coherent meaning from what he or she heard?  Did the individual understand the meaning of the direction the same way you intended it?  Does the individual experience problems with memory or motor planning/sequencing that affect how many items of content he or she can retain or perform?Is the person afraid to follow the direction?  Does he or she expect failure or frustration?  These are typical reasons why individuals don’t do what they are asked to do.  But is it really enough to ascribe the function of avoidance (or “social negative”) and leave it at that?
  • There are many layers of “Why:As you will see in the following sections describing the four traditional functions of behavior, finding the function of a behavior is merely the beginning.  It can be pretty obvious that someone does something for attention (Social/Positive) or to avoid a demand (Social/Negative).  With training and experience, we can tell whether behaviors are performed for self-stimulatory, personal or “automatic” functions.So?  Without knowing why the person needs or thinks he or she needs attention – we can proceed with pretty clumsy, ham-handed and ineffective intervention because we are not really looking at the many contextual, layered, and synergistic underlying reasons.  Let’s take that individual that behaves in ways that have the function of getting attention…Does the person know whether attention is readily available or appropriate at the time?  Young children typically don’t.  They cannot appraise when adults are busy, can’t pay attention, or when it is inappropriate to ask for attention.  They simply don’t have the learning or ability to judge this, and the ‘attention problem behavior’ results because the Student cannot or does not determine the contextual clues that determine if and when attention is appropriate.  And accordingly, these young children make no adjustments in their own goals for attention based on exigencies that are readily observable to us. These underlying reasons are by far the most common ones with young children and Students – when attention seeking is a problem.Does emotion have something to do with it?  Is the individual scared, lonely or using attention-seeking as a means of avoiding some other demand?  If so, what is the demand and why does the person seek to avoid it?  Is it because the processing demands exceed the ability?  Expectations of failure or frustration?  Lack of interest?  Don’t you want or need to know that before you come up with interventions?We could proceed by intervening with new forms.  As we shall see below, knowing the function allows you to pick more appropriate behaviors that will achieve the same end.  They are known as Functionally Equivalent Replacement Behaviors or ‘FERBs.’  FERBs are FERBs when they do an adequate job of replacing inappropriate behaviors.This won’t happen is you’re replacing the wrong thing.  Let’s say it is the way the Student goes about seeking attention – making noises, that is the problem.  A FERB might be to learn to raise his or her hand.  Sounds good, but here’s what can be wrong…

…    the FERB (raising hand) is easily taught, but since no attention was paid to why this Student needed so much attention in the first place, the Student ended up raising his or her hand too much and getting frustrated.   Worse behavior resulted when the Student began to feel ignored.

…    for some reason, this FERB didn’t work.  The reason it didn’t work is because raising one’s hand is the last thing some children want to do in front of their friends.  There are a whole host of social reasons that could be making that so, but the point is, you’re poking around in the dark trying to teach FERBs without knowing the many layers of “why” here.

We want to know how the individual looks for information and what patterns he or she can see in the information.  The form of Functional Assessment advocated here looks at thinking patterns, as they are very often typical of a certain developmental stage of learning.   Various theorists have described common developmental pathways that can be observed either universally (across cultures), or within cultures.  Developmental science gives us a way to describe thinking and action patterns.  Developmental science looks at typical sequences of learning and the qualitative differences in behaviors that are characteristic of these stages.

The following heuristic is based on Jean Piaget’s stages of learning epistemology, with examples of how these stages can be readily observed in the regular behavior of individuals, or during a “period” in which the individual behaves in characteristic ways until he or she moves to another stage:

Table: Stages at Work in a Similar Behavior: Ambulation[7]

 Stage  Ambulating  Ice-Skating

Sensorimotor:

Walking is effortful.  When walking, the toddler has to think about it.  Simple things like carrying something, walking too far, turning around, talking or looking at others while walking and other variations are very likely to result in mistakes/falls.  The support of a hand or furniture is often necessary at the beginning of the stage. Ice-Skating is effortful.  One has to think about it and cannot do much of anything else. The person is keenly aware of his or her senses and motor movements – as if going through a sensorimotor period.  Simple things like talking, turning around, or looking at others while skating or other variations are very likely to result in mistakes/falls. The support of a hand or the railing is often necessary at the beginning of the stage.

Pre-operations:

Walking is less effortful and more reliable.  The 18-36 month old toddler is still unstable.  Walking is still easily perturbed.  The toddler still finds it difficult to do other things while walking during the beginning of the stage. Skating is less effortful and more reliable.  The novice is still unstable.  Skating is still easily perturbed by changes in balance or the presence of other skaters whizzing by.  The novice still finds it difficult to do other things while skating during the beginning of the stage.

Concrete Operations:

Walking is automatic.  The 36 month old can run, turn around, walk backwards, and stand on one foot for a little bit.  This continues to become more stable, but walking is dependent upon experience.  This individual cannot do complex forms of walking; realistic imitations of others’ styles of walking, etc., that he or she has not practiced before. Forward skating is automatic.  The person adds variations slowly such as holding hands with a partner, skating in various directions, going backwards, etc., but the performance is based on what’s been already learned effortfully.

Formal Operations:

The individual has mastered walking so that he or she can easily pay attention to the world without having to think about it – in a variety of walking conditions.  Walking and talking or moving one’s arms at will are easy, and a complex obstacle course can be mastered quickly. All of the foundational moves have been learned, and the focus is now on complex variations.  Learning of new moves takes place with less practice or help – sometimes just upon observation.

Unfortunately, in the Behavioral Science literature, there seems to be some allergy to principles of Student development – even though, as a branch of biology, what we know about how children develop comes from the most empirical and scientifically sound scientific disciplines.  I think that the ‘disconnect’ started with the ongoing [behaviorist] belief that developmentalists believe that development causes behavior.  No developmentalist has ever said that as far as I know.   Development is the result of changes in thinking and perception and ability that come from interactions with the environment.  What is difficult for behaviorists to understand are the qualitative leaps development seems to undergo.  This is because development is a system, and systems do not progress in linear fashion.  Systems are characterized by sudden and spontaneous changes of state.

The classic example is that of a sand pile in an hourglass.  The sand pours in a steady rate, but unpredictably, there are avalanches.  There tend to be more small avalanches than big ones.  This is how development works.  There can be many events that seem to represent plateaus – or consistent, steady rates of growth or even stagnation or regression, and then all of the sudden, qualitatively new types of behaviors form.

For instance, babies go through a stage where they explore things with their mouths.  All neurotypical infants do this – no matter what culture they live in.  This makes sense on the surface – babies need to learn how to use their mouths in order to develop the skills needed for speech, and, babies at that age don’t really get much from simply looking at objects or having people show or describe them to them.  If we know this, we might then look at a behavior as characteristic of this exploratory style (that is, yes, associated qualitatively with a specific stage of development).  This knowledge can really help develop an intervention.

One might look at other types of mouthing behaviors as FERBs that could be better forms and that will have the best chance of succeeding.  This should be more fruitful than picking a FERB that is characteristic of older Student’s exploratory styles and that will turn out to be not understandable or interesting to the Student.

And the intelligent, developmentally informed interventionist would also look at the next stage up – that stage that is within the Zone of Proximal Development for the Student, and teach more advanced forms of exploration.  These new skills could become pivotal in sparking a whole new set of learning experiences that won’t require additional teaching.

Here are a few more examples of how knowledge of development and developmental pathology can inform the astute Functional Assessor:

Motor Planning: Children with motor planning problems have difficulty thinking sequentially.  They are very locked into the “here and now,” and have trouble anticipating upcoming events, making transitions, thinking about the consequences before acting, and flexible thinking in general, etc…

Social: Individuals with PDDs reference others infrequently, missing a lot of social/non-verbal behavior, and other information.  They also have a tendency to watch and to concentrate on their own motor actions.  This leads to missing natural cues, requiring support in other ways (compensation).

Emotional: Some children go into fight or flight behavior out of a history of inappropriate teaching, misattunement, shame, etc.  Once triggered, there is a very rapid sequence to panicked, disorganized behavior.  Neurologically, this can be explained by the development of rapid and efficient pathways between stimulus and response – bypassing cognitive processes.  The Setting Condition here would be the history and evolution that led up to the current state.  The Function of the behavior would be the pattern of quick responding:

“Functions of” describe the feelings, implicit or episodic memories, learning histories, developmental qualities (as described above), etc. that contribute to but cannot be described as “causes of” behavior.  This is a very important distinction both theoretically for the practitioner, as well as for the Student to understand.  So before I describe “Functions of…” further.

Functions are not Causes, whether they are ‘Functions of’ or ‘Functions for’

In lay terms, it is easy, appropriate, and efficient to speak in casual ways about behaviors.  It is a fact that aspecies specifictrait in humans is to form hypotheses of othersintentions and subsequent or likely behavior.  This is what our highly social brain evolved to do, and is responsible in large part to the great increases in cerebral volume and capacity that humans have.[8] We’re pretty good at it – but not perfect – and that was why “Behavioral Science” became a field and “Behavioral Intuition” is still just something we do.

The girl is yelling because she wants attention.”  “He hit that other boy because the other boy made him mad.”  In typical human interaction, we constantly make inferences about why people do things and we’re often right.  In informal, non-scientific analysis, this is fine – we couldn’t get along without it.[9]

And we’re often wrong.  In human relationships, errors or breakdowns are typical of the open systems of social relating.  We spend approximately 60+% of our time in human interaction getting things wrong and making adjustments, clarifications, corrections, etc. – under the best circumstances.  Human social relating is usually an open system and open systems have the property of constant change and constant adjustment.

The functional analysis of behavior is supposed to be empirical, scientific, and as expected of a science, in the end – to reduce error.  So it would be inappropriate to say with certainty that a stimulus or a feeling or perception caused a behavior in a theory of operant behavior.[10]

The girl’s yelling indeed produced the consequence of attentionThat may even be “why” she did it.  But in order for us to say for sure whether that is why she did it, we would have to test this hypothesis under controlled conditions.[11]  We note the pattern of the behavior and the consequences it produces and we explain the relationship as a “functional relationship.”

Furthermore, if she wanted attention, there were other choices of behavior or other possibilities for changing the environment so that she does not have to yell – and that is the main point.

Maybe she wanted attention – but that is not the reason why she yelled.  She chose to yell for attention, which is why we assess and intervene – it’s a problem behavior.  She could’ve chosen other behavior – so the Student’s desire for attention was not the reason for the yelling.

As Guides and other types of Student Guides, it is important for us to teach that disabilities, processing issues, feelings and such – which may be intrinsically and inseparably involved factors – still do not cause [operant] behavior.  Even a broken leg doesn’t cause one to limp – one can easily sit.

But as Guides to Students, we don’t want to lead them to believe that they hit someone because they were angry. This absolves them of responsibility and is an incorrect assumption about behavior.  A prime point of their behavioral education should be to change such thinking.

No – the Student chose to hit as a response to anger.  It was not a reflex.
This is a very important theoretical point and an important distinction to teach to Students.

There are four traditional functions of behavior (see more detailed discussion below):

Table: Functional Categories

Functional Category Consequences are Examples
Social functions involve things people do with or for each other
Social Positive ADDED: Social forms of consequences are added (positive) to the environment usually involving ways of getting attention or social interaction or engagement
Social Negative REMOVED: Social consequences are removed (negative) from the environment usually involving ways of getting demands removed
Automatic functions are personal.  They involve personally pleasurable or aversive experiences
Automatic Positive ADDED: Personal forms of consequences are added (positive) to the environment usually involving ways of getting [pleasant] stimulation
Automatic Negative REMOVED: Personal consequences are removed (negative) from the environment usually involving ways of getting unpleasant stimulation (discomfort, pain, boredom) removed

In the current state of the field, Functional Analysts are not trained to look much further into the layers of why than the 4 above functions.  They can proceed directly to intervention after forming the hypothesis.  We think this is a mistake – there’s a lot more to know.

The Difference between “Functions of…” and “Setting Conditions”

“Functions of…” have specific links to behavior implying causation. The term “Setting Condition” is a broader concept implying a looser association – where the condition simply makes the behavior more likely.

You will find that “Functions of…” overlap with “Setting Conditions.”  Therefore, you do not need to go into too much detail if you have already done so in the “Setting Conditions” section.  Instead, simply draw the link that you hypothesize is causal.

All Functions are to be Considered Valid

All behaviors serve a purpose, whether they take an appropriate form or not.  Target behaviors do not represent inappropriate functions, only inappropriate forms.  Intervention often seeks to change forms, not functions.  Here are some examples:

Function Inappropriate Form Forms to Teach (FERBs)
Seeking social engagement Banging a toy on the table “Mommy look”
Refusing/Protesting Running away “No;” “I don’t want to…”
Requesting an object Grabbing “Please”

Traditional “Functions of Behavior

Functions for:

These describe the purposes of behavior – the apparent goals the Student has that the behavior serves.  Functional analysis moved long ago from identification of simple triggers (simple Stimulus [trigger] ® Response), to hypothesizing about the reasons the behavior occurs – the reasons the Operant chooses the behavior.  This was an advance that actually allowed for reasonable speculation – which was previously frowned upon as non-science.

The traditional functions of behavior examine the relationships between behaviors and the consequences the behaviors produce. This relationship is called the “functional relationship” as it attempts to explain how behaviors produce consequences, and, how behaviors become ‘under the control’ of consequences.

Moreover, for specific behaviors and consequences to be considered, “functionally related,” the consequences must be a direct or indirect result of the behavior.  Subsequently, by withdrawing the reinforcing consequences (maintainers) of the behavior (a process called, “extinction”), the behavior should decline and eventually no longer occur (“extinguishment” of the behavior).

When specific consequences occur reliably due to the presence of behavior (Behavior: flip the switch; Consequence: light comes on), the behavior is referred to as under the control of its consequences (the behavior probably wouldn’t occur or keep occurring if the light didn’t come on).

Developing a Hypothesis about Why a Behavior Occurs

When analyzing how an individual “operates” or makes choices or selects behaviors, we are trying to determine what the individual expects from engaging in the behavior. The expectation is really why the behavior occurs.  This expectation comes from prior experience between the behavior and the consequences that followed.  Skinner referred to this ‘experience’ not simply as the formation of an association between a behavior and its reinforcing consequences, he referred to this change as learning.

When past becomes future, or, when prior experience (i.e. ‘learning,’ or at least ‘association’) leads to anticipation and expectation that behaviors will produce the same effects, then behaviors are said to be under the control of those consequences.  In other words, individuals behave in certain ways because they expect something will happen because of it. Behavior therefore has the function of making that effect happen. It is why the behavior occurs.

One answer that applies to every question of “why” a behavior continues to happen or increases is because it produces some sort of reinforcement. In other words, in the science of operant behavior, behaviors can be explained by their consequences.

If you look at this in terms of an individual’s expectations and where expectations come from (learning), then this way of describing the relationship isn’t really paradoxical. That is, when a person behaves (flips a switch) it produces some sort of change in the environment (light comes on). Learning leads the person to expect that when he or she flips the switch the light will come on and therefore the “switch flipping” behavior is under the control of the light.  The “switch flipping” behavior will presumably stop if the light no longer comes on.[12]  When the behaviors no longer produce the same effects, the assumption is that behavior will change. This is because the behaviors no longer serve the function; there is no longer a reason why continuing the behavior would be desirable.

Two Broad Categories of Behavior Functions: Social and Personal or Automatic

Applied Behavior Analytic (ABA) theory includes two broad categories of social functions, and two broad categories of Automatic or self-related functions.  Each function has a type that is defined by whether the behavior results in reinforcement being added to (a ‘Positive’ type) or removed from (a ‘Negative’ type) the environment.

Social Functions of Behavior

The function of the behavior serves the purpose of interaction and/or changing some aspect of someone else’s behavior.  Social functions of behavior generally or have the intention of communicating something to someone and are under the control of social consequences (changes in other people’s behavior).[13], [14]

Automatic Functions of Behavior

The function of the behavior serves the purpose of controlling sensory stimulation or self-regulation of arousal, mood, or stimulation.  The behavior itself is reinforcing.  Put another way, the behavior is [primarily] under the control of sensory consequences.  Behaviors serving sensory or automatic functions do not involve others directly and often occur in the absence of other people.

Functions that Add or Remove Consequences

Behaviors either get something added to or get something removed from the environment.  These functions further define social and automatic functions.  They help us understand and define the “why” of behavior because they focus on whether social or automatic consequences are being added or removed from the environment by the behavior.

Positive Functions of Behavior

The function of the behavior serves the purpose of obtaining something or getting something (e.g., social behaviors of others or sensory stimulation) added to the environment.

Negative Functions of Behavior

The function of the behavior serves the purpose of getting something removed or getting away from something (e.g., social behaviors of others or sensory stimulation) removed from the environment.

Combining Social or Automatic Functions of Behavior with Functions that Add or Remove Consequences

  • Behaviors have a “Social/Positive” function when they cause social events (consequences) to happen, to continue, or to increase.
  • Behaviors have a “Social/Negative” function when they cause removal, escape or reductions of demands made by other people (the demand may be to perform a task or behavior or the demand may be social-interactive; as long as the behavior comes from another person or from a rule that people make [social demand], then the function is considered to be a “social” one).
  • Behaviors have an “Automatic/Positive” function when they produce pleasurable sensory consequences
  • Behaviors have an “Automatic/Negative” function when they remove or reduce aversive sensory consequences

It might be helpful at this point to look first at a single “form” of behavior, and the various functions or “functional relationships” between behavior and consequences could be involved…

Table: How a Single Form of Behavior Can Serve Different Functions

Behavior: ‘Pounding on the table:’ the behavior consists of pounding a table with one’s fist.

Behavior form: Pounding on the table Consequences Functional Relationship
(Social Positive functional relationship) People pay attention to it; People become engaged in social interaction attention and social engagement are produced by and are therefore “under the control” of pounding on the table
(Social Negative functional relationship) People leave the roomPeople stop making certain demands – they show signs of intimidation and prior restraint reduction, modification, elimination, etc. of social demands are achieved by and are therefore “under the control” of pounding on the table
(Automatic Positive functional relationship) Feels good the good feeling is produced by the behavior; the good feeling is “under the control” of pounding on the table
(Automatic Negative functional relationship) Masks a worse feeling Pounding on the table feels better than some other form of physical or mental pain.[15]

Reinforcement Functions of Behavior

Positive Functions of Behavior and Reinforcement

The term “Positive,” in “Positive Reinforcement” refers to what happens or becomes added to the environment after a behavior occurs.  In this respect, “positive” does not refer to whether the consequences of behavior produces feel good or are “positive” in the common sense of the word (pleasant).   In behavioral theory and in the functional analysis of behavior, “positive” means some behavior, reaction or environmental effect was “added” in response to or as a consequence of the behavior and whatever was added has a reinforcing effect on the behavior (it makes it likely to continue or increase). This is why “Positive Reinforcement” is often confused with “Positive Behavioral Support.”

If the behavior results in new things happening in the environment, then it is referred to as “positive” because the new things are considered “added.”

Positive: The behavior reliably produces and is under the control of consequences that are new or added to the environment

Reinforcement: The consequences produced from the behavior make the behavior continue or likely to occur again

Simply put…

Positive” = consequences are added to the environment as a result of the behavior

Reinforcement/Reinforcer/Reinforcing Consequences…” = Makes the behavior continue or more likely to occur again

Negative Functions of Behavior and Reinforcement

The term “Negative” refers to what ceases to happen or becomes removed from the environment after a behavior occurs.  The term, “reinforcement” applies when the resulting removal makes a behavior more likely to continue or increase.

“The negative reinforcement hypothesis suggests environmental stimuli or conditions that are removed, attenuated (weakened or reduced), or prevented contingent on the occurrence of the problem behavior will increase the probability that the behavior will recur.” [16]

When analyzing behavior, the Assessor looks for what doesn’t happen because of the behavior. The Assessor looks for answers to the question, “What changes in the environment does the behavior terminate, avoid, postpone, escape or reduce?”

If the behavior is maintained or increased by elements that are removed from the environment, then it is referred to as “negatively reinforced.”  In this respect, “negative” does not refer to whether the consequences of behavior produces feel bad or are “aversive” (as in unpleasant) in the common sense of the word. In behavioral theory and in the functional analysis of behavior, “negative” means that consequences are “removed.”

Simply put…

Negative” = “Removed”
Because you’re still dealing with a form of reinforcement, you continue to ask, “How does removal or avoidance of something make the behavior more likely to happen again?  For instance, some sort of off-putting or socially inappropriate behavior may result in peers avoiding a Student. If peer interaction is somehow unpleasant and for some reason is something the Student seeks to avoid, then the inappropriate behavior would be considered “successful” and could explain why the Student does it. The Student’s behavior results in the removal of social demands, and because removal of something is what the Student wants (the behavior is successful), the behavior is more likely to occur again and the behavior has therefore produced reinforcement.  For this Student, being left alone is more desirable than social engagement, and any behavior that is successful in getting people to leave him or her alone is more likely to happen again.

So the behaviors the Student uses to get others to leave him or her alone – if they are successful, produce Social–Negative-Reinforcement.

Social/Communicative Negative Reinforcement

The behaviors the Student uses with others

…to get others to leave him alone

…are successful and the Student is therefore more likely to engage in the behaviors again
Interpersonal Removal Reinforcement

Here are some typical examples of negative reinforcement paradigms that Guides are familiar with:

Stimulus Behavior Consequence Reinforcement
Teacher presents academic demand Student shuts down Teaching the Student is too effortful and time-consuming Teacher lowers expectations and demands
Teacher sets limits on a behavior Student tantrums Tantrums produce fear and intimidation Teacher relaxes, changes or drops limit
Teacher tries to teach the class Student acts up Student sent to Principal Student didn’t want to be there anyway

Negative reinforcement can also strengthen the relationship between behaviors designed to get sensory (automatic) stimuli removed or attenuated.  When the behaviors are successful in accomplishing that goal “Automatic/Negative” reinforcement explains why the behavior continues.

Automatic Functions and Reinforcement

This suggests that “…the problem behavior is maintained or strengthened by the sensory consequences the behavior produces.” (Repp, Horner; 1999).

The behavior feels good.  There is some sort of sensory or mental stimulation that results for the Student when the behavior occurs.  Often, there is sort of a [drug-type] withdrawal that occurs when the behaviors are simply prevented, and the individual seeks a replacement.  These behaviors will be likely to recur without reaction from the external environment.

Automatic: The behaviors involve sensory, or personal effects

Negative: The behavior reliably removes (e.g., terminates, postpones, avoids, escapes, reduces, etc.), these effects.

Reinforcement: Whatever gets removed from the environment by the behavior makes the behavior continue or likely to occur again

Table: Negative Functions and Reinforcement

Automatic Negative Reinforcement
 The behaviors the Student uses when faced with unpleasant sensory stimuli  …to get the stimuli removed  …are successful and the Student is therefore more likely to engage in the behaviors again
Personal Removal Increase in Behavior
Student covers ears when the class sings songs …to block the sound …blocking the sound relieves the discomfort caused by the class singing, so the Student continues to cover ears during song time
Student smokes pot …boredom is removed …boredom is replaced by a better feeling

Review:

The functions of behavior are either to produce (Positive) or remove (Negative) consequences.

Consequences produced by behavior can be Social (interactive) or Automatic (sensory)

Consequences produced by behavior can result in maintaining or increasing the rate of behaviors that produce them (Reinforcement)

Table: Putting Functions and Reinforcement together:

Positive Negative
The behavior causes something to happen or to be added to the environment. The behavior causes something not to happen or to be removed from the environment.
Social Automatic
The behavior causes changes in the interpersonal environment. The behavior produces personal effects that do not necessarily depend on the presence or participation of others.
Social/Positive Reinforcement: The behavior results in (Added) interpersonal behaviors in others (Social: people’s responses [responses become new stimuli])…… What becomes added to the environment makes it more likely the behavior will maintain its current rate or increase (Reinforcement)Example:  The behavior produces attention or continuation of social interaction, and the addition of attention or the continuation of social interaction make the behavior more likely to happen again.
Social/Negative Reinforcement: The behavior results in removal (Negative) of interpersonal behaviors (Social) of others…… What becomes removed from the environment makes it more likely the behavior will maintain its current rate or increase (Reinforcement)Example: Throwing a tantrum results in someone going away or someone removing or modifying demands for interpersonal interaction. The tantrum is successful in removing or modifying a social demand and therefore makes the behavior more likely to happen again. Modifications can include postponing, reducing or escaping social demands.
Automatic/Positive Reinforcement: The behavior results in sensory, imaginary, or otherwise personal (Automatic) effects that are produced by behavior (added/”Positive”) …… What becomes added to the environment makes it more likely the behavior will maintain its current rate or increase (Reinforcement)Example:  Turning on the fan results in the room cooling off.  Reading a book provides entertainment.
Automatic/Negative Reinforcement: The behavior results in sensory, imaginary, or otherwise personal (Automatic) effects that are removedby behavior (removed/” Negative”) …… What becomes removed from the environment makes it more likely the behavior will maintain its current rate or increase (Reinforcement)Example: Taking out the garbage removes its smell from the environment. Putting on headphones blocks unwanted noises.

 Other commonly used “traditional functions”

I really don’t like these, but they are used all the time.

  • Attention: I don’t like this term for two reasons: it is not specific enough, and; the connotation is that for some reason, when a Student seeks attention – it is somehow bad or unwarranted.  Without attention and social stimulation, we would die.
    • Using the term “attention” does not specify “why” the Student seeks it.  Therefore, using this term does not do what a Functional Analysis is supposed to do – show hypotheses of “why” behavior occurs.
    • Secondly, “seeking attention” is as valid as any other function and should not be changed.  Perhaps the Student seeks interaction in the wrong way – then the intervention would focus on teaching appropriate forms of seeking interaction.  Or, perhaps the Student seeks interaction at inappropriate times or too frequently – then the intervention would focus on learning when interaction is available and when it is not, or it could focus on teaching the Student forms of independent play.
  • Escape: Escape is another term that is unspecific and has an almost automatically negative connotation.  It is not enough to know that behaviors serve the purpose of escaping a task, a demand, a limit, and so forth.  This is often already painfully obvious to the Teacher.
    • Indeed, Students often refuse or attempt to avoid or escape situations by choice and for no apparent “good” reason.  But it is incumbent upon the analyst to explore anxieties, fears, prior negative experiences, learning issues or other factors that might contribute to the Student’s motivation to engage in escape type behavior.  If viewed in this way, so-called “escape” or “avoidance” behaviors can be seen (from the Student’s perspective) as means of regulating anxiety and self-preservation, and the functions (if not forms) of the behavior are valid and adaptive.

Here are some examples:

Table: Functions, Forms and FERBs

Function Inappropriate Form Forms to Teach
Preserve his work and/or to remember where he was when interrupted Ignore Teacher’s requests to stop playing with blocks for a moment to go use the potty. Develop the ability to think in a sequence that goes from stopping and remembering where he was, interrupting the activity to go do something else, and then returning to where he left off.
Bringing closure to tasks or play or interaction Ignore Teacher’s requests to stop playing; Whining or tantrumming when Teacher has to forcefully end the task. Mental sequencing and planning closure steps; making plans to resume in the future.

Instead of “attention” or “escape,” which are forms of requests and have requesting functions (i.e., “requesting attention” function; “requesting escape/cessation of demand” function) it is better to use the “Functions of Communication (as described above).

Relationship of Forms to Functions of Behavior

Engineers have a saying, “Form always follows function.”  This is absolutely true.  The forms of behavior that we observe serve the purposes or functions of behavior.  Forms are the means, functions are the reasons.

A single form of behavior can serve a variety of functions, and vise versa; a function can be expressed in many forms.

Multiple Forms/Single Function

The Student uses a variety of behaviors to accomplish the same goal.  As evidence of learning ability and motivation, children often try out many different behaviors, and through an evolutionary process discover which ones are the most effective in a given context.

Patricia has discovered that tantrums work much better in public than they do at home.  At home, persistent whining is the most effective way to get mom to give her what she wants.

Carrie has learned that there are several sure-fire ways to get Mom off the phone: running out the front door; breaking something and; hitting her little brother.

Jerry has developed a few strategies to initiate social interaction with his peers on the playground: throwing sand on them; pulling his pants down; hitting or spitting, among others.  All of the behaviors are inappropriate and repugnant to his peers, but since Jerry doesn’t really know what their social reactions actually mean – he seems to find them very rewarding.

Multiple Functions/Limited Forms

The Student tends to use the same behavior for a variety of reasons.  This is more common in children who have the most severe deficits in cognition, language, or emotional development.

Angela is 34 months old with Down’s syndrome.  Her sister, Francesca is 10 months old.  Angela seems to love Francesca, but she has to be watched because she doesn’t really know how to play with her yet.  Angela sometimes makes Francesca cry because she’s too rough, or she insists on playing with her the way she likes to play.  Angela doesn’t mean any harm, but her mom, Maxine, fears this could lead to Francesca getting hurt.

Angela is a very social Student by nature.  She sees Mom truly enjoying Francesca, and when mom is around to guide them; Angela and Francesca derive great joy in each other.  So no doubt, the original functions of Angela’s rough behavior were to initiate play, as well as to find stimulation through play and social interaction.  However, they both have a tendency to grab each others’ toys.

Angela is a learner indeed, and has discovered other positive consequences of doing things like knocking her sister down, pinching her, biting, and hitting her.  Mom seems to react shortly after Francesca does.  In fact, the Francesca’s reaction isn’t nearly as cool as Mom’s reaction.  Angela has noticed that if she persists and Francesca cries enough, Mom will react reliably.  Mom will drop whatever she is doing and spend some time alone with her.

Over time, Angela has discovered that being aggressive towards her sister is useful for:

Getting sister to cry

Getting sister removed

Getting interaction going with mom

Getting Mom to drop whatever she is doing

Entertaining herself

Venting frustration and rage

So we see here that several different functions or purposes of behavior are served by a single form of behavior – aggression.  The reason this is more commonly seen [but certainly not exclusive to] lower functioning individuals is that they simply don’t have large and differentiated repertoires of behavior to begin with.  This is also common of any “developmentally young” child (that is, “developmentally young” by virtue of chronological age and neurotypical development, or developmental delay).  Babies cry for many different reasons (functions).

However, certain forms of behavior, such as aggression for instance, can be used by the most intelligent and sophisticated among us – because it works so well.  Why wouldn’t someone use an inappropriate behavior when it works well?  The answer lies in the consequences.  The consequences may produce certain gains… that can be accompanied by more punishing emotional and self-related consequences such as shame, regret, disgust, etc.  It is very important in a relationship-based philosophy of intervention to realize that emotions such as shame, regret, humiliation, embarrassment etc., are relationship-based emotions.  They are learned and cannot exist without a history of social consequences.

Matching Forms to Their Functions

Since many forms of behavior can serve the same function, and many functions of behavior can be served by the same behavioral form – how can you tell which behaviors serve which functions?

We still and always categorize forms and functions of behavior by the consequences they produce.  That is the bottom line.   When we look at the consequences, we observe whether or not they tend to maintain or increase the behavioral forms (reinforcement), or whether they serve to reduce the behavioral forms (punishment).

Keep in mind that behavior is not static.  Learners learn and therefore change their behavior.  Therefore, they may intentionally, or through serendipity discover that certain forms of behavior “work.”  When a behavior “works” for an individual, it serves a function and produces reinforcement.

When a behavior no longer produces the expected reinforcing consequences, individuals tend to try again or to try other things.  Here again, the tendency of lower functioning or “developmentally young” individuals is to try the same thing over and over again.  They have trouble inventing new behaviors or figuring out new behaviors.

Hypothesis Testing

The ultimate test of form and function is to test your functional hypothesis.  Functional Assessment does not include formal hypothesis testing procedures and is not covered in this manual.  Hypothesis Testing involves tightly controlling conditions so that stimuli and consequences can be presented and withdrawn to see their differential effects on the behavior.  In general, a combination of careful attention and collection of data through direct observation, interview, record reviews and history taking can yield a sufficient working hypothesis.

Setting Events

We cannot under-emphasize the importance we place on setting conditions.  Setting events have to do with factors within the individual (e.g., the “Individual Differences” described in the DIR model) that affect the individual’s capacities and predilections for responding. They  may or may not be readily observable.  Individuals especially trained in these areas such as Occupational and Physical Therapists, Neurologists, Educational, Developmental or Neuro-Psychologists and Special Education Teachers can however spot the telltale signs of processing anomalies by observation and/or testing.  We feel that the lack of emphasis and required education in these areas in the field of ABA is extremely unfortunate since they have come to dominate the treatment of autistic disorders and behaviors in Special Education, where processing disorders are very central to the behavioral, emotional and psychological profiles of the individuals in treatment.  Treating individuals without such knowledge can lead to haphazard and formulaic treatments that do not fit or can cause regression.

Internal Setting Events

Sensory/Arousal Related

Sensory/Arousal Related Setting Events include any difficulties with sensory registration or modulation (sensation), differences in mood and temperament, etc. that affect how the individual experiences information received from the world through the senses and through body awareness.  The individual may be under- or overreactive, or possess a profile of under-reactivity in some areas and over-reactivity in others.  These factors affect the person’s levels of alertness and capacities for emotional arousal (and subsequently for attention and memory) from a neurological level.

Processing Related

The mind turns sensation into awareness through perception.  This is a secondary level of neurological processing that makes what we all experience uniquely meaningful to us.  Perceptual processing is the first part of making meaning of stimuli.  It is the formation of mental representations of sensory information.  What we call feeling, tasting, smelling, etc, is really the perception of sensation.  We are aware of it.  Perception is not necessarily tied automatically to sensation.  For instance, we have “sensors” that monitor the salt content of our blood, but our perception is thirst.  We are aware of our thirst.  Lower animals such as reptiles and insects experience sensation , but are unlikely to have perceptual awareness.  So much for that.

Perception is so important in understanding why behavior occurs because we do not respond to reality, we respond to our perception or interpretation of reality.

The central coherence disorder of autism and learning disabilities is caused by neural pathways that do not produce reliable representations of reality.  For instance the individual’s hearing or visual acuity may be fine, but they may have difficulty distinguishing sounds in the foreground from sounds in the background, or they may have difficulty in following objects in motion.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of perceptual anomalies that affect learning and behavior.  A lot of the escape motivated behaviors related to academic instruction start out at least from unreliable processing of information.

Difficulties with Motor Planning

Motor Planning involves forming intentions and pulling together the perception and motor coordinated sequences and problem-solving processes in order to accomplish goal oriented behaviors.  This requires exquisite synchrony between multivariate neural pathways that all work in different ways and at different speeds.  Emotional apparati in the brain function as orchestra conductors, connecting intentions to perceptions in a continuous feedback loops.  Autism, Learning Disabilities, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, disorders of attention and memory and some psychiatric disorders (e.g., schizophrenia) are the result of asynchronies of neural circuitry.  These asynchronies affect the individual’s style of learning and can be a central factor in the basic coordination of movement or the formulation of intentions and ideas, or they may be manifest as difficulties with higher order planning, sequencing and/or inhibiting or modulating responses.

Sensory and Perceptual processing difficulties makes it more difficult for the child to relate to and communicate with others and thus impede abilities to learn, to respond, and to develop along typical pathways.  The Developmental Psychopathology approach that influences our method of Functional Analysis of Behavior looks very closely and seriously at this layer of complexity of behavior.  Here again…

Behavioral and developmental concerns for treatment can be defined as discrepancies between the internal capacities and prior learning of the individual and what his or her current environment(s) require.

Therefore, to help a child progress, we must understand how he functions in each of these areas.  Once we have pinpointed his specific challenges, we can begin to design treatment programs to ameliorate them.

See Assessment of Individual Differences

Current Environmental Setting Conditions

These have to do with observation of the characteristics and requirements of the environment and how they influence current behavior.  For instance, the mother may have a newborn baby attends to occupy a lot of her time, and this has caused an increase in certain behaviors in the individual of concern designed to compel her attention, or; the playground has a lot of children running to and fro, and the individual is afraid of noise and unexpected events, which has led to a pattern of withdrawing from play, etc.

In observation, it is very important to look for the volume and amount of sensory input within an environment, the requirements for fluid and dynamic adapting, whether or not the environment changes frequently, the conceptual and language demands, etc.  It is very important to look at the level of symbolic attainment or representation (level of operations, i.e., Sensorimotor; Presymbolic and Preconceptual; Preoperational, and the requirements of the curriculum from a Piagetian standpoint).  This is required in our company’s method of Functional Analysis of Behavior as it is inseparable from behavior and behavioral tendencies.  In academic environments, it is especially important, because most of the escape-motivated behaviors have to do with the operational levels required by the curriculum, and those currently attained by the individual.  Here, you would want to assess the compensatory mechanisms the child has, or whether or not the academic environment is in the process of actually remediating them or developing compensatory strategies before turning to manipulations of consequences!

Establishing Operations and Motivating Operations

These are behavioral terms that describe conditions other people use to manipulate or arrange environmental conditions to influence the likelihood of behavior.   The terms are used interchangeably.  Since they are factors that alter the effects of a consequence, I could easily discuss them in the section on Consequent Functions of Behavior.  In the discussion of the Functions of Behavior, we will go into more detailed discussion about how the process of learning transforms consequences into antecedents.

Basically, once an individual learns that a behavior produces a given consequence, the learner now carries around the knowledge as an antecedent to the same or similar circumstances.  So if I’ve touched fire before and burned myself as a consequence, I remember it.  My memory of this is a part of me the next time I see fire, is part of the antecedent now, and influences my likelihood of touching or not touching the fire.

I have also learned that approaching some forms of fire, such as a fireplace, can make me warmer than I am and feel good.  Where the consequent functions of Establishing or Motivating Operations comes in, is when we alter the value of that consequence.  So, on a cold day, when I am cold, the value of that fireplace to me is higher than it would be on a hot day.  On a hot day, being in front of the fireplace would be unlikely.  The fire on a hot day is not reinforcing my behavior of sitting next to the fireplace.  And, if someone wanted me to be more likely to sit by the fireplace, he or she might keep the temperature down.  In the same way, someone who is full may not be very motivated by food.  Someone that has done the same thing over and over and is bored by it, is unlikely to respond to the same thing, but perhaps more likely to respond to a change or novelty.

In the behavioral literature, establishing/motivating operations are often associated with ‘states of deprivation,’ specifically, the deprivation of reinforcement.  A hungry person is more likely to respond to food as a reinforcer than one that is satiated on food.  Keep in mind that we are talking about instances or cases where we have seen that, ‘consequence Y’ reinforces [maintains or increases the likelihood of] ‘behavior X.’

It is easy to see how someone that has eaten may not be motivated to work for food, and therefore, being full is an antecedent “motivating/abolishing operation” that you should be aware of if you’re going to use food as a ‘reinforcer’ in your intervention.  In such a case, being full or sated suppresses or diminishes the value of food as a reinforcer, whereas being hungry might increase food’s value.

In your examination of the environment, you would want to look for those things that:

  • Previously established relationships between behaviors and reinforcing consequences (“reinforcers” can be natural consequences or “added” as in ‘positive reinforcement’ schemes).
  • How factors within the individual and within the environment serve to alter the value of those reinforcers
  • You look at …

… what the Student really wants; what she’s really interested in; what her behavior seems motivated to produce (reinforcement) from the environment (see Behavioral Functions below)

… what tends to make those same things more likely (what factors make the reinforcer more valuable)

… what tends to make those same things less likely (what factors make the reinforcer less valuable)

Triggers of Behavior

These are the observable events that take place directly prior to the problem, and the temporal proximity of the events implies but does not prove causation.  In older models of  functional analysis of behavior, “antecedents” were synonymous with “triggers.”  This was because the requirement was that you had to be able to observe the antecedent.  It is superficial and ridiculous to believe that you can observe all the real antecedents of a problem, unless you assume that a person is a mindless blank slate that approaches environments with no preferences, predilections, or expectations.  This bears repeating: feelings, perceptions, preconceptions, etc. interact with the environment to stimulate behavior.

Functional Results

The primary goal of traditional Applied Behavior Analysis is to form a hypothesis of why behaviors occur.  No one can ever know with absolute certainty why a behavior occurs every time, so the only thing possible is to develop a hypothesis.  Since we know that behaviors produce consequences, we call this section “Functional Results.”  There are ‘Functions of,’ i.e., certain characteristics that are within the Student or the environment that have a lot to do with why a person is predisposed towards behavior.  And then there are the traditional “Functions for” that represent hypotheses about the usefulness of a behavior or why the individual actually engages in the behavior under assessment.

Setting Events

We cannot under-emphasize the importance we place on setting conditions.  Setting events have to do with factors within the individual (e.g., the “Individual Differences” described in the DIR model) that affect the individual’s capacities and predilections for responding. They  may or may not be readily observable.  Individuals especially trained in these areas such as Occupational and Physical Therapists, Neurologists, Educational, Developmental or Neuro-Psychologists and Special Education Teachers can however spot the telltale signs of processing anomalies by observation and/or testing.  We feel that the lack of emphasis and required education in these areas in the field of ABA is extremely unfortunate since they have come to dominate the treatment of autistic disorders and behaviors in Special Education, where processing disorders are very central to the behavioral, emotional and psychological profiles of the individuals in treatment.  Treating individuals without such knowledge can lead to haphazard and formulaic treatments that do not fit or can cause regression.

Internal Setting Events

Sensory/Arousal Related

Sensory/Arousal Related Setting Events include any difficulties with sensory registration or modulation (sensation), differences in mood and temperament, etc. that affect how the individual experiences information received from the world through the senses and through body awareness.  The individual may be under- or overreactive, or possess a profile of under-reactivity in some areas and over-reactivity in others.  These factors affect the person’s levels of alertness and capacities for emotional arousal (and subsequently for attention and memory) from a neurological level.

Processing Related

The mind turns sensation into awareness through perception.  This is a secondary level of neurological processing that makes what we all experience uniquely meaningful to us.  Perceptual processing is the first part of making meaning of stimuli.  It is the formation of mental representations of sensory information.  What we call feeling, tasting, smelling, etc, is really the perception of sensation.  We are aware of it.  Perception is not necessarily tied automatically to sensation.  For instance, we have “sensors” that monitor the salt content of our blood, but our perception is thirst.  We are aware of our thirst.  Lower animals such as reptiles and insects experience sensation , but are unlikely to have perceptual awareness.  So much for that.

Perception is so important in understanding why behavior occurs because we do not respond to reality, we respond to our perception or interpretation of reality.

The central coherence disorder of autism and learning disabilities is caused by neural pathways that do not produce reliable representations of reality.  For instance the individual’s hearing or visual acuity may be fine, but they may have difficulty distinguishing sounds in the foreground from sounds in the background, or they may have difficulty in following objects in motion.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of perceptual anomalies that affect learning and behavior.  A lot of the escape motivated behaviors related to academic instruction start out at least from unreliable processing of information.

Difficulties with Motor Planning

Motor Planning involves forming intentions and pulling together the perception and motor coordinated sequences and problem-solving processes in order to accomplish goal oriented behaviors.  This requires exquisite synchrony between multivariate neural pathways that all work in different ways and at different speeds.  Emotional apparati in the brain function as orchestra conductors, connecting intentions to perceptions in a continuous feedback loops.  Autism, Learning Disabilities, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, disorders of attention and memory and some psychiatric disorders (e.g., schizophrenia) are the result of asynchronies of neural circuitry.  These asynchronies affect the individual’s style of learning and can be a central factor in the basic coordination of movement or the formulation of intentions and ideas, or they may be manifest as difficulties with higher order planning, sequencing and/or inhibiting or modulating responses.

Sensory and Perceptual processing difficulties makes it more difficult for the child to relate to and communicate with others and thus impede abilities to learn, to respond, and to develop along typical pathways.  The Developmental Psychopathology approach that influences our method of Functional Analysis of Behavior looks very closely and seriously at this layer of complexity of behavior.  Here again…

Behavioral and developmental concerns for treatment can be defined as discrepancies between the internal capacities and prior learning of the individual and what his or her current environment(s) require.

Therefore, to help a child progress, we must understand how he functions in each of these areas.  Once we have pinpointed his specific challenges, we can begin to design treatment programs to ameliorate them.

See Assessment of Individual Differences

Current Environmental Setting Conditions

These have to do with observation of the characteristics and requirements of the environment and how they influence current behavior.  For instance, the mother may have a newborn baby attends to occupy a lot of her time, and this has caused an increase in certain behaviors in the individual of concern designed to compel her attention, or; the playground has a lot of children running to and fro, and the individual is afraid of noise and unexpected events, which has led to a pattern of withdrawing from play, etc.

In observation, it is very important to look for the volume and amount of sensory input within an environment, the requirements for fluid and dynamic adapting, whether or not the environment changes frequently, the conceptual and language demands, etc.  It is very important to look at the level of symbolic attainment or representation (level of operations, i.e., Sensorimotor; Presymbolic and Preconceptual; Preoperational, and the requirements of the curriculum from a Piagetian standpoint).  This is required in our company’s method of Functional Analysis of Behavior as it is inseparable from behavior and behavioral tendencies.  In academic environments, it is especially important, because most of the escape-motivated behaviors have to do with the operational levels required by the curriculum, and those currently attained by the individual.  Here, you would want to assess the compensatory mechanisms the child has, or whether or not the academic environment is in the process of actually remediating them or developing compensatory strategies before turning to manipulations of consequences!

Triggers of Behavior

These are the observable events that take place directly prior to the problem, and the temporal proximity of the events implies but does not prove causation.  In older models of  functional analysis of behavior, “antecedents” were synonymous with “triggers.”  This was because the requirement was that you had to be able to observe the antecedent.  It is superficial and ridiculous to believe that you can observe all the real antecedents of a problem, unless you assume that a person is a mindless blank slate that approaches environments with no preferences, predilections, or expectations.  This bears repeating: feelings, perceptions, preconceptions, etc. interact with the environment to stimulate behavior.

Functional Results

The primary goal of traditional Applied Behavior Analysis is to form a hypothesis of why behaviors occur.  No one can ever know with absolute certainty why a behavior occurs every time, so the only thing possible is to develop a hypothesis.  Since we know that behaviors produce consequences, we call this section “Functional Results.”  There are ‘Functions of,’ i.e., certain characteristics that are within the Student or the environment that have a lot to do with why a person is predisposed towards behavior.  And then there are the traditional “Functions for” that represent hypotheses about the usefulness of a behavior or why the individual actually engages in the behavior under assessment.

Consequences of Behavior

ABA Terms: Value Altering Operations: Motivating (Evocative) and Abolishing (Abative) Effects of Consequences

One of the things you might notice when observing the same behaviors over time or in different circumstances is that consequences for behavior may sometimes be effective and sometimes not.  For instance, on days when child already receives a lot of attention, he may not do the same things he did before for attention. On days when less attention is available, he may do those things more frequently.  If a Student in one classroom is praised for practically everything he does, then praise may be less effective as a reinforcing consequence in that classroom.  In another classroom, where praise is less frequent, the Student may respond better to it.

Value altering effects typically involve states of ‘satiation’ (having enough) and ‘deprivation’ (not having enough).  Satiation tends to abate or lessen the value of a consequence, whereas deprivation tends to evoke or increase the value of a consequence.  Deprivation tends to motivate action, whereas satiation often leads to inaction or less behavior.  This is why behaviorists often refer to conditions of deprivation as “Motivating Operations,” because deprivation increases the value of the consequences.  Alternatively, behaviorists refer to states of satiation as “Abolishing Operations” because they abolish or at least abate (lessen) the value of consequences.

Motivating operations and abolishing operations temporarily alter the effects or power of consequences, which helps explain why the same consequences may have different effects in the same individual.  They are one way of looking at factors that make behavior more or less likely, beyond simple examination of the consequences.  They address internal states and states of mind and body that have very real effects on the entire picture.

 

In-home Functional Assessment Examples:

  • When a child has a late snack and is full, satiation can function as an abolishing operation if it affects the reinforcing value of food at dinner time.
    • On the other hand, if a child is hungry, food becomes a more powerful reinforcer, so hunger can function as a motivating operation for eating.
  • When a nap makes it less likely that a child will go to bed and sleep on time, then the nap can function as an abolishing operation for sleeping at night.
  • When a parent has been threatened with eviction from her apartment due to her child’s screaming, then her fear of eviction and neighbor complaints can function as a motivating operation for her to give the child everything he demands.Her fear of eviction can also function as an abolishing operation for setting limits.

Establishing Operations and Motivating Operations

These are behavioral terms that describe conditions other people use to manipulate or arrange environmental conditions to influence the likelihood of behavior.   The terms are used interchangeably.  Since they are factors that alter the effects of a consequence, I could easily discuss them in the section on Consequent Functions of Behavior.  In the discussion of the Functions of Behavior, we will go into more detailed discussion about how the process of learning transforms consequences into antecedents.

Basically, once an individual learns that a behavior produces a given consequence, the learner now carries around the knowledge as an antecedent to the same or similar circumstances.  So if I’ve touched fire before and burned myself as a consequence, I remember it.  My memory of this is a part of me the next time I see fire, is part of the antecedent now, and influences my likelihood of touching or not touching the fire.

I have also learned that approaching some forms of fire, such as a fireplace, can make me warmer than I am and feel good.  Where the consequent functions of Establishing or Motivating Operations comes in, is when we alter the value of that consequence.  So, on a cold day, when I am cold, the value of that fireplace to me is higher than it would be on a hot day.  On a hot day, being in front of the fireplace would be unlikely.  The fire on a hot day is not reinforcing my behavior of sitting next to the fireplace.  And, if someone wanted me to be more likely to sit by the fireplace, he or she might keep the temperature down.  In the same way, someone who is full may not be very motivated by food.  Someone that has done the same thing over and over and is bored by it, is unlikely to respond to the same thing, but perhaps more likely to respond to a change or novelty.

In the behavioral literature, establishing/motivating operations are often associated with ‘states of deprivation,’ specifically, the deprivation of reinforcement.  A hungry person is more likely to respond to food as a reinforcer than one that is satiated on food.  Keep in mind that we are talking about instances or cases where we have seen that, ‘consequence Y’ reinforces [maintains or increases the likelihood of] ‘behavior X.’

It is easy to see how someone that has eaten may not be motivated to work for food, and therefore, being full is an antecedent “motivating/abolishing operation” that you should be aware of if you’re going to use food as a ‘reinforcer’ in your intervention.  In such a case, being full or sated suppresses or diminishes the value of food as a reinforcer, whereas being hungry might increase food’s value.

In your examination of the environment, you would want to look for those things that:

  • Previously established relationships between behaviors and reinforcing consequences (“reinforcers” can be natural consequences or “added” as in ‘positive reinforcement’ schemes).
  • How factors within the individual and within the environment serve to alter the value of those reinforcers
  • You look at …

… what the Student really wants; what she’s really interested in; what her behavior seems motivated to produce (reinforcement) from the environment (see Behavioral Functions below)

… what tends to make those same things more likely (what factors make the reinforcer more valuable)

… what tends to make those same things less likely (what factors make the reinforcer less valuable)


[1]    Kazdin, A.; 2001; Behavior Modification in Applied Settings; Wadsworth

[2]     We “know this” because we see Neil fail to take contextual factors into account in all settings.  We see that it is others that appraise these factors for him and not Neil, as evidenced by their need to cue Neil, as well as the fact that these cues have to do with context-appraisals that others do for him.

[3]     Forms of behavior are described in the section “Description of Behavior” above.

 

[4]     Fundamental to our philosophy is that we take a phenomenological approach to behavior.   That is, we help parents understand the subjective experience of the Student.   Usually, phenomenology in psychology is the examination of the subjective experience of the individual as reported by that individual.  Since we work with children, many of whom cannot describe their experience, we use neurotypical and neurobiological development as a guide.

From:  Valle, R., Ph.D., Mohs, M., L.V.N., M.A.; Transpersonal Awareness in Phenomenological Inquiry, Philosophy, Reflections, and Recent Research; In W. Braud and R. Anderson (Editors),Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience. Sage Publications. pp. 95-113.

In classic behaviorism, the human individual is regarded as a passive entity whose experience cannot be accurately verified or measured by natural scientific methods. This entity, seen as implicitly separate from its surrounding environment, simply responds or reacts to stimuli that impinge on it from the external physical and social world. Because only that which can be observed with the senses and quantified, and whose qualities and dimensions can be agreed to by more than one observer, is recognized as acceptable evidence, human behavior (including verbal behavior) became the focus of psychology.

In a partial response to this situation, the radical behaviorism of Skinner (e.g., 1974) claims to have collapsed this classic behavior- experience split by regarding thoughts and emotions as subject to the same laws that govern operant conditioning and the roles that stimuli, responses, and reinforcement schedules play within this paradigm. Thoughts and feelings are, simply, behaviors.

[5]       Interestingly, while we can call up many thoughts at will, the content seems to be always visual and auditory.  We cannot recall smells (we can recognize them in the present – but the actual stimulus must be present, whereas in visual or auditory thinking – the stimulus does not have to be present).  Isn’t that interesting?  This is probably because we are primates, and vision and audition are distal senses – those can be used from a distance – say, from up a tree.  Neurotypically developed individuals use vision and audition as their primary modes of perception and memory, as well as exclusively for thinking.

[6]     Physicists believe that there are as many as 11 dimensions of ‘space’ or more.  Our nervous systems equip us to perceive 3 (length, depth, width), or perhaps 4 if you include “time” or duration.

 

[7]     In this table, in the second column, ambulation is compared to an infant/toddler/Student progressing in walking.  In the rightmost column, we see a form of new ambulation that well established walkers might learn – to see how the same stages are recapitulated when we learn complex activities from the beginning.

[8]     The evolution of increased cerebral volume to accommodate a brain that could run through social scenarios and possible social outcomes before acting, and that could commit social [episodic] events to memory, was well underway in primates and other hominid species long before homo-sapiens.  Homo-sapiens is different mainly in the capacities we have for this.

[9]     Difficulties or inability to make reasonable inferences about others’ thinking, perceptions, knowledge-base, tendencies, etc.” is a primary deficit in Autism Spectrum and related disorders.

[10]    Reflexes are caused by stimuli.  But reflexes are the subject of “Respondent Theory,” not “Operant Theory.”  Operants choose their behaviors – Respondents don’t.  So a puff of air in your eye will cause you to blink.  The stimulus in other words, “caused” the behavior.

[11]    We’re only doing Functional Assessment here, not strict Functional Analysis of Behavior.  Functional Assessment attempts to determine the function (cause) of the behavior using indirect (interviews; rating scales), systematic (direct observation of the person’s behavior.   Functional Analysis adds “hypothesis testing” or the manipulation of environmental events to see how behavior changes.  Functional Assessment is common in schools, whereas Functional Analysis is rare in schools, but a standard for research.

[12]    According to learning theory, a behavior that continues to occur must somehow produce reinforcement. The behavior may produce infrequent, indirect, subtle, generalized or other forms of reinforcement, but nevertheless, it is axiomatic that if a behavior continues to occur, it is somehow or another “being reinforced” or producing reinforcement. The learner does not even need to understand the relationship between his or her behavior and the consequences the behavior produces.

[13]    Thoughts also can serve social functions if they are connected to social behavior or communication with one’s self.  Remember that thoughts are merely internalized actions representing behaviors of the individual or of others.

[14]    Social functions of behavior also apply to human interactions with animals if they meet the criterion of the person’s behavior is somehow under the control of the consequences of changes in the animal’s behavior.

[15]    Some psychiatric patients engage in cutting or mutilating themselves as a means to interfere with the pain severe mental anguish.  This can be identified as an “automatic negative” function.

Some individuals with severe mental retardation may bang their heads when they have a headache (automatic negative), or, they may engage in self-injurious behaviors because these behaviors produce opiates (as is the case with the psychiatric patients described above).  Now, opiates are added, so we could call it an ‘automatic positive,’ but since we cannot be sure of this being the case with any individual, we are safer when we can readily tell that the response is a response to pain and the behavior is therefore performing a removal (negative) function.

[16]   Repp, A.; Horner, R.; 1999; Functional Analysis of Problem Behavior; From Effective Assessment to Effective Support; Wadsworth