Functional Analysis

Functional analysis is based on the premise that all behaviour has a function for the person and all behaviour is communication. The function falls into four or five broad areas. These are:

Attention– behaviour happens because the person is looking for interaction with a person or people. Interaction is a basic human need and people with communication difficulties may seek interaction in ways that cause difficulties for themselves or others. The type of attention they are seeking may be verbal, non-verbal or physical. It is not good enough to state that a person has “attention seeking behaviour”. You have to look at the function of ‘attention seeking’ for the person.

Example: A child repeats the same questions over and over again. The function of the behaviour might be to engage in a ‘conversation’. The child’s cognitive ability means that their conversation skills are limited to persistent questioning.

Challenging behaviour often leads to a lot of attention and interaction from carers. If the carer tries to ignore the behaviour the child increases the intensity of challenging behaviour until they get the response they are looking for.

Escape– behaviour happens because the person doesn’t want to do something or wants to avoid a situation. There are a number of reasons why a person might want to ‘escape’ so it is important to try to understand the function of this behaviour. It may be a sensory issues, for example many people with autism find shopping trips very difficult due to the noise and crowds. It may be because the person is physically or mentally unwell and feels unable to carry out tasks (avoiding demands).

When escape-behaviour is maintained by the behaviour of others it is called ‘negative reinforcement’.

Example: A child is expected to join the class for circle time, which involves sitting still and waiting for his turn. The child finds it difficult to wait and bites the child next to him. The child is taken out of circle time.

Tangible– behaviour happens because the child wants access to a preferred activity, physical item, food, TV programme etc. Tangible-motivated behaviour is positively reinforced by the child having access to the thing that they want. It may require careful assessment as the child may try to ‘escape’ one situation to gain access to a tangible reward. For example the child who avoids circle time may be offered a preferred activity to keep them calm and quiet. Which is the motivating factor – escape or the activity?

Example: Child in the supermarket wants sweets at the counter. Child screams and cries until parent gives in and buys sweets for the child.

Sensory– behaviour occurs because the person is rewarded by the sensory feedback that the behaviour brings. Behaviours that are reinforced by sensory feedback can be difficult to reduce because we have less control over external factors, like offering or withdrawing attention, or tangible items or activities.

Difficult behaviours associated with sensory feedback include self-injurious behaviour like picking skin, pulling out eye lashes, hitting the face, banging the head against objects, and biting or slapping others.

It is important to rule out the other behavioural functions before looking at sensory feedback as these types of behaviour can be reinforced by any of the above.

It could be argued that fifth behavioural function is the expression of pain, emotional distress, or mental illness.

We might then ask parents/carers to complete ABC charts. These are antecedent, behaviour, consequences charts.

They allow us to get a better picture of:

  • What triggers behaviour
  • What the behaviour looks like
  • What the maintaining or reinforcing factors are
  • Frequency, intensity and duration

which helps us to plan the best strategy to manage the behaviour.


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