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Talking with Parents About Functions of Behavior in ABA Parent Training

Talking with Parents About Functions of Behavior in ABA Parent Training

ABA parent training is a complex service, but it is highly valuable and very much needed for many families of children with autism spectrum disorder. As professionals in the applied behavior analysis field, we not only need to use our knowledge and experience of ABA, but we also need to use many skills that help us to work effectively with parents in the context of training and providing guidance and support. We need to be able to incorporate more than just memorized facts about ABA into our interactions with parents in ABA parent training. We should be able to provide a delicate balance of empathy, education, and guidance.

Thinking about the purpose of ABA parent training, we know that our main job as ABA service providers is to help parents help their children improve skills and decrease maladaptive behaviors while also helping the parent learn skills themselves that will either directly or indirectly help the identified client. We may also help the family unit as a whole.

One area in which we may help parents learn to approach their child’s maladaptive behaviors is by educating them on what the functions of behavior are from an ABA perspective. We should be able to clearly explain the functions of behavior to the parents we are working with yet sometimes we forget that they may come from a different background and likely have not had the same training as us. With that being said, there is nothing wrong or inferior about the knowledge parents have. Certainly, they have insight into their child better than we may even have. However, when it comes to ABA terminology, we should be gentle and compassionate yet appropriately assertive and confident in our ability to help them to learn about the functions of behavior. Ultimately, the ABA professional and the parent are looking out for the best interest of the client. The two individuals should feel as though they are on the same team.

So how do we talk about the functions of behavior with parents?

We can talk about this topic in our ABA parent training services by explaining that behavior is maintained by its consequences and influenced by its antecedents. We should further clarify that, in ABA – in the way we are discussing behavior, consequences are not really what the general public may think of as consequences. Instead, consequences are the things that happen after the behavior.

This also goes for antecedents. Remember to mention that antecedents come before the behavior.

Then, you can return to explaining the functions of behavior by pointing out that the consequences of behavior are what tends to make a behavior more or less likely to happen again.

Inform parents that there are four functions of behavior; that all behavior happens because of one or more of the four functions of behavior. As a refresher, the four functions of behavior include:

  • Escape or Avoidance

  • Attention

  • Access

  • Automatic Reinforcement

ESCAPE OR AVOIDANCE

When a behavior is maintained by the function of escape or avoidance, the person’s behavior is generally attempting to help them get out of a situation that they do not like or helping them to avoid being in a situation they don’t like.

ATTENTION

When a behavior is maintained by the function of attention, the person’s behavior is generally attempting to get some form of attention for that individual. Attention can come in various forms. Attention might not always even be “good.” For instance, sometimes kids who continually “talk back” or argue with others may be doing so because the behavior is maintained by the attention received after they “talk back.” This is not to blame either the child or the other person. It is simply an explanation of the behavioral contingencies that tend to occur in human experiences.

ACCESS

When a person’s behavior is maintained by the function of access, this could mean that their behavior serves as a tool to help that individual receive access to any tangible item or experiential activity. Behaviors may lead to the child getting a toy they want or getting to play video games when they want to. Again, talking about the function of behavior isn’t to blame or excuse any behavior. It is simply a way to explain and then a starting point for exploring effective ways to improve a child’s behavior.

When looking at the function of access, one child may throw a tantrum in order to access video games whereas another child may complete his homework to play video games. These are just two examples of behavioral contingencies that could happen based on a complex set of factors including a child’s learning history and the parents’ behaviors, as well. Of course, we can look deeper into behavior and provide further rationale for the development of these two situations, but the basic idea is that the function of access has allowed the behavior of tantrums or completing homework to occur in these families.

AUTOMATIC REINFORCEMENT

Some people might look at automatic reinforcement as being the function that is related to “sensory” experiences. This has some truth to it. Automatically reinforced behaviors are maintained due to the person’s own experiences and not due to what is happening outside his body or based on what other people do in response to his behaviors. An automatically reinforced behavior is maintained based upon a response in the child’s body as experienced through sensory input. This could be that something feels good, that something tastes pleasing or comforting, or that something relieves pain (or attempts to relieve pain).

Be sure to review the functions of behavior with parents in ABA parent training. Helping parents understand this idea of behavioral learning can help them to understand your interventions and recommendations more clearly.

It is also important to remember that one behavior may have multiple functions depending on the individual child and the context (Day, et. al., 1994). So, although we try to be clear with our terminology, it is not always black and white, which is why parents have you, as the ABA provider, to help guide them through understanding their child’s behavior and helping their child to learn and grow.

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REFERENCES

Day, H. M., Horner, R. H., & O'Neill, R. E. (1994). Multiple functions of problem behaviors: assessment and intervention. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 27(2), 279–289. doi:10.1901/jaba.1994.27-279

Professional and Ethical Code for Behavior Analysts. (2014). Retrieved May 10, 2019, from https://www.bacb.com/wp-content/uploads/BACB-Compliance-Code-english_190318.pdf.

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