People behave in ways that ensure their needs are met. Behavior is anything a person can do, positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy: working, speaking, smoking, taking deep breaths, having a meltdown, following the rules, practicing an instrument, playing, drawing, losing graciously, and washing one’s car are just a few examples of Things People Do.

All behavior serves a purpose, or “function”. It might seem too simple, but all human behavior can be categorized into 4 major functions, detailed in the next section.


FBA stands for Functional Behavior Assessment. It’s a method of understanding the root cause, or function, of behavior. An FBA’s purpose is to identify the specific motivation behind a behavior targeted for increase or decrease. Everything humans do results in one of four general functions: to access something we like (e.g., money, toys), escape from something we don’t like (e.g., chores), to get another person’s attention (e.g., soliciting praise, starting a conversation), or some kind of sensory payoff (e.g., the sensation of listening to music or sitting in a massage chair). Everything we do has a purpose, a motivation behind it – even the things people do that occur “randomly” or “unpredictably”.

“Behavior” refers to everything a person does: sleeping, talking, thinking, dressing, yelling, focusing, crying and reading are all examples of behavior. Traditionally, FBAs are performed when a person is exhibiting behaviors that are dangerous, socially inappropriate, or interfere with the individual’s ability to learn in their natural environment (where they live, go to school, work, etc.) Children with special needs exhibit challenging behaviors more often and more intensely than their typically-developing peers, but every child acts out at different stages of development. All parents can benefit from learning to understand behavior patterns, identify the purpose the behavior serves for the child, and how to reduce challenging behaviors while augmenting new skills that make challenging behavior less likely to occur in the future. 

Consider this example. Everyone is familiar with the child who’s crying for candy at the grocery store, with their embarrassed parent that doesn’t want to cause a scene. The parent gives in, buys the candy, and gives it to the child. The child stops crying – success! Right? There’s one significant problem here: this child has just been taught by their parent that crying at the store is an effective way to get some candy. The candy acts as a reinforcer, or reward, for the crying that immediately preceded it. The payoff, or function, of crying is access to candy. The parent’s behavior of providing the candy is subsequently rewarded by the sudden absence of crying. This circular interaction is called a behavior trap, and even the savviest parents get stuck in them. 

Humans tend to repeat behaviors that work. The crying may have ceased in the moment, but the next time they visit the store, the exact same situation is likely to occur, all things being relatively equal. All too often, a second mistake is made: the application of punishments without respect to the identified function. A child who cries, is spanked and yelled at, and receives candy anyway is now a child who cries for candy and gets beaten for it, even though the parent is the one in control of the reinforcer. The problem hasn’t been solved; it’s only been made worse.

Now think of a child who is avoiding their work and is put in time-out. Time-out, in this particular instance, is completely counterproductive, because now the child doesn’t have to do their work for some time. They earned themself a break without having to learn how to request one or seek help with their work. In order to truly reduce challenging behavior and not just stop it in the moment, the intervention applied must match the identified function. Behavior change procedures that do not consider function are doomed to fail. They are especially dangerous because they tend to stop behavior in the moment, leading parents to think that the consequence was effective, and they also do not teach the child what to do instead. Only through modeling and reinforcement do we learn how to behave appropriately in society. 

Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is the scientific foundation of the FBA. ABA is primarily concerned with assessing behavior in the context of the event that immediately precedes it (antecedent) and its consequence, which is the event that occurs following the behavior. By analyzing the relationship between antecedent, behavior, and consequence (ABC), clinicians are able to draw useful treatment conclusions that have already been proven to work thousands of times in the literature. Antecedents and consequences can be tweaked in order to “cut off supply” to negative behaviors and funnel it instead to new, socially acceptable behaviors. For example, feeding a child before going to the store and providing them with candy immediately after entering the store is an antecedent modification that would make it less likely the child will want candy at the register due to already being full and having candy available. With practice, the child can learn to ask for candy nicely (called a replacement behavior because it serves the same function as the challenging behavior). On the consequence end, the child now only receives candy at the register if they’ve asked nicely, without crying. Crying now goes unrewarded, and after a short period of higher intensity, it will eventually completely stop occurring in this context. There is a saying, “behavior goes where reinforcement flows.” For every challenging behavior, there’s at least one skill deficit at play. 

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An FBA is a test involving a series of observations, parent interviews, and data collection to identify behavior function and replacement behaviors and develop a function-based intervention plan with antecedent and consequence modifications spelled out. These assessments are usually administered by behavior analysts or school psychologists for children with chronic behavioral problems, but the science and techniques are useful for every family. Once you’re able to take a step back, observe, and assess whether how you’re responding is helping or hurting a situation, your effectiveness as a parent will improve. Fewer challenging behaviors and parents with a new sense of understanding make life so much easier day-to-day for everyone involved! 

Quest Depot makes this valuable, hard-to-obtain service available to all parents, which includes personalized parent coaching and behavior tracking based on evidence-based practices. Users are invited to log ABC data when challenging behaviors occur to assist QuestMates with ongoing assessment. Try Quest Depot to access the expert knowledge of experienced behavior analysts any and every time you need them. Calmer, more peaceful days as a family are ahead!

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