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Problem behavior and what to do.

When I talk to parents, they're often frustrated with tantrums and aggression. This frustration is the exacerbated by knowing their child is upset a lot and not being able to help. So what do behavior analysts do to help children with problem behavior?

The first thing a behavior analyst will do is complete an assessment. A functional behavior assessment is often completed by talking with the parent and asking questions about what happens right before the behavior and then right after. Another form of assessment is completing a MAS or FAST. The MAS (Motivation Assessment Scale) or the FAST (Functional Analysis Screening Tool) ask a variety of questions that try to then predict the what the function of the behavior is. Think about the function of a behavior as what the person is getting as a result of the behavior. So, what are the functions of behavior?

In ABA all behavior has a function. It may be difficult to figure out what that function is for some learners, but there is always, 100%, a function. Once you know what that function is, that's when you can start treating. It can also get really complicated when the behavior is under multiple stimulus control which is the behavior way of saying the learner uses the behavior for more than one function. The four functions of behavior are: Access, Escape/Avoidance, Attention, and Automatic.

Access: If a behavior is maintained by access, that means the person engaging in the behavior is getting some sort of item as a result of the behavior. An example is when a baby cries because she is hungry and the parent goes over to the baby to offer food. Since that behavior got the baby the food she wanted, she is more likely in the future to cry to get food.

Escape: Imagine you're at the movie theater waiting to to watch something. Suddenly the speakers let out a loud, sharp squeal that just keeps on going! I probably won't take long for you to decide to get on out of there. You're going to "escape" something in your environment that you don't like.

Avoidance: Avoidance is very similar to escape which is why they're put together. Imagine you're afraid of escalators. One day you're at the mall and want to go to a store on the second floor. You look around and see the escalators. You still want to go upstairs so you'll have to find another way. After looking around, you find the elevators. Bingo! You've just avoided that thing you don't like!

Attention: Have you ever heard of a class clown in school? This is usually attention maintained behavior. The class clown makes jokes or comments to get everyone laughing and looking at him/her. (This is one of those sneaky situations where the function might also be escape/avoidance because if the class clown is disrupting class, the teacher can't teach or the class clown is avoiding doing a worksheet or other work.)

Automatic: This is behaviors a person does just because they like doing the behavior. It's sometimes called sensory, but that's not really the best description of why the behavior occurs. Think of your favorite food. Eating it just makes you feel good. Maybe it's a rich, dark chocolate or a smooth milk chocolate.... my favorite is crème brulee because I love to take my spoon and crack the sugar crust for no other reason than because I like to do it.

So what does this all mean for you and your child? Well, whatever your child is doing, s/he's doing it because that behavior is getting him/her something. The best intervention is to provide a functionally equivalent replacement behavior (FERB). This means that we teach the child to do a different, easier, effective behavior than the problem behavior. One really great way to do that is to provide functional communication training (FCT). With FCT, a person is taught how to appropriately ask for the item he or she wants or ask for a break from a difficult task. So instead of throwing a temper tantrum, we'll teach your child to use words, signs, or even a communication device to ask for juice, ball, blocks, etc. that he or she wants.

There are lots of different ways to handle problem behavior and the above is just one place your child's behavior analyst may start. The best advice is to get a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) ASAP to get this started. Hopefully this will help you understand why your child is behaving the way s/he does!


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