Understanding Behavior Functionally


Angela Cathey, M.A. & Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

A functional approach to understanding behavior is often difficult for non-behavior analysts to grasp. Tracking functional relationships requires that the observer attend to the relationship between behavior and context below the level of form. In practice, this means that a behavior analyst cannot simply view a behavior out of the context and determine how to change it. The functions that are taken on are driven by how relations of stimuli change across the organism’s learning history.

In a recent video by Brett DiNovi and Associates, Brett and his team of behavior analysts discuss common functions of behavior and note common behavioral expressions related to these functions. Of note in the video are their descriptions of escape, attention, and automatic reinforcement maintaining behaviors. Escape functions are commonly misunderstood as behavior analysts and the public alike may fail to see that temporary escape of aversive stimuli can still reinforce escape behaviors. A great example of this, provided in the video, is an escape function that tends to promote procrastination behavior. People will tend to report that the activity may not have been ‘escaped’ but the more proximal avoidance of aversive experience (engaging with whatever was avoided) may still reinforce avoidance if the aversive activity is still completed at a later point.

Attention, in many forms, can maintain and increase the occurrence of behaviors. However, even ‘negative’ attention (e.g., expressions of anger) can maintain or increase a behavior and is often confusing for non-behavior analysts. Teachers, parents, and caregivers alike often make the mistake of overlooking positive behaviors when they occur and attending to children more frequently when they engage in behaviors that are problematic for the parents.

Automatic reinforcement, also discussed in the video, is often related to sensory stimulation. Children and adults will often engage in brief behaviors that subtly alter sensory experience. For children with developmental disabilities, this is often referred to as ‘stimming’ and may take the form of waving hands or making noises for the purpose of experiencing the sensations created by the act itself.

To learn more about common functions of behavior and how you can better determine the functions of clinical and non-clinical behavior, check out Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel.

Be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

bSci21Media, LLC, owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org.  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurialbSciWebDesignbSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at brett@brettdassociates.com

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