Finding the ‘Why’

We often hear experts telling us to find, and focus, on the why…or the reason for a behavior.  But what exactly does that mean?  It seems like there’s COUNTLESS reasons for why our child is behaving in certain ways… how on earth are we to know what they are?  And how do we figure it out so quickly, so that we can still address it in the moment?

What if I were to tell you that all behavior falls into 4 categories of ‘why?’  Meaning, there are only 4 possible reasons for which someone is behaving a certain way.  Sounds crazy, right?  Let’s take a look:

The 4 functions of behavior are: Escape, Attention, Tangible, and Sensory.  Some may also add in Medical.  (Acronyms to remember these by include EATS, MEATS, TEAMS…etc.) **Please note that the following examples are simply that…examples…showing the different functions.  Ways to address and handle certain behaviors will be discussed in other posts.**

simply means that someone is engaging in a behavior to escape something.  They could be trying to escape a certain situation, or even a task they were told to do.  An example would be if a young child were to begin screaming, crying, thrashing when she sees the bathtub being filled.  She doesn’t want to take a bath.  If the parents remove her from the bathroom and take her somewhere else to calm down or talk with her (or even perhaps use a time-out or other punishment because of her behavior), then her screaming, crying, and thrashing has served its purpose: it has allowed her to escape from taking the bath.  So, next time her parents try to get her in the bathroom, she is more likely to do the same thing (scream, cry, thrash), since it served its purpose before.

Another example might consist of a teacher telling students to take out their math books. One student begins to make disruptive noises, making the other students laugh.  The teacher asks him to stop, he doesn’t, so she sends him out of the room.  His behavior (making disruptive noises) has served as an escape function.  He did not want to do math, and so he made disruptive noises, resulting in the delay of class and eventually being sent from the room.  (As adults, we also may do things to escape a situation… like calling in sick to work, even though we may not be sick).

Attention means that someone is doing something to get the attention of someone else.  Anything we do, from speaking to someone, to putting our hand on their arm, could function as trying to get someone’s attention, especially if we are rewarded with their attention after doing it! We all learn early on the best way to get our parents’ attention – by doing the thing they respond to the most.  For example, if a child is asking a question, but not receiving an answer from his mom (she’s busy), he may start whining, and loudly.  She responds immediately with, “What do you want? I’m on the phone!” Even though her tone is harsh, he’s still gained her attention.  He has learned that whining will consistently get her to respond to him, when speaking in a normal tone may not.  So, in the future, when he would like to get his mom’s attention, he’s more likely to whine.

means something you can touch, or hold, or even an activity they want to do (like listen to music).  A person may behave a certain way because they want something.  We engage in these kinds of behaviors ALL. THE. TIME.  We open the fridge because we want a drink.  We drive to the store because we want a new shirt. Another example is when a child starts to tantrum in the grocery store because she saw the fruit snacks and now wants one.  Or when a child hits another child because he wants the toy that child is playing with.  We learn what behavior to perform that’s going to get us the best results (the thing we want).

Sensory can be a tough one, since behaviors serving this function are automatically reinforced.  This means that the person is gaining some kind of sensory input that is pleasing to them, and they don’t have to interact with their environment to get it.  Whatever they’re doing is making them FEEL a certain way, they like that feeling, and so they continue to engage in that behavior.  For many of us, this may be as simple as rocking slightly, side to side, when we are standing.  We may not know exactly why we do this, but it’s a comforting habit (hint: it became a habit because it’s comforting…so we kept doing it).  We may also bite our nails when we’re feeling a certain way.  The nail biting may be giving us something to do with our hands and mouth when we’re feeling nervous or stressed and don’t know what else to do; we gain some relief from doing it.  With individuals with developmental disabilities, such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), self-stimming (such as flicking fingers, or waving hands rapidly) is a sensory behavior.

When I say that sensory behaviors are tough, I mean that they can be tough to get rid of (or decrease), since there’s not much in the environment (or outside the person) that can replace the behavior they are doing that’s going to give them the same feeling.

And Medical, even though that’s not included all the time, should also be talked about, since some people will behave a certain way because they aren’t feeling well.  (Think of how irritable you are when you’re sick, and how you may snap at others when you normally wouldn’t).  Young babies and toddlers may act differently if they aren’t feeling well, such as hitting or rubbing their ear if it hurts, or crying uncontrollably and being restless when new teeth are coming in.  Medical is added into the list of functions because it never hurts to consider a medical reason for why someone is behaving a certain way.

Once you know the function, or the why, of a behavior, it’s becomes a bit easier to understand the behavior.  Specifically pertaining to young kids, by focusing on and addressing the why, and not the behavior itself, you can greatly reduce the unwanted behavior, or increase the behavior you want to see.

6 thoughts on “Finding the ‘Why’

  1. […] Extinction is a term used to describe the removal, or discontinuation, of reinforcement for a specific behavior. If you say you are now ignoring a behavior in order to get it to stop, you may be using extinction. Though, keep in mind, ignoring means you are removing your attention, and this will only work if the function of the behavior is attention. I talk about functions of behavior here. […]

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