Module 2 – Thinking functionally

Thinking functionally about behaviour is key to supporting students who are building their prosocial skills.

The science of behaviour

Understanding the reasons behind behaviour is key to supporting students build their prosocial skills.

Behaviour is:

  • any observable and measurable act that an individual does – the actions or reactions of a student (or anyone) to the environment or prior events
  • a form of communication (for example, "this work is too hard", "I need help", "please talk to me")
  • learnt, predicable, serves a purpose and is changeable
  • governed by the consequences that follow the behaviour.

If a behaviour achieves the desired outcome individuals will continue to perform that behaviour. If it does not, we stop.

Behaviours occur in response to something, whereas identified stimuli are called antecedents.

Educators cannot make a person change. However, teachers can shape the environment to increase the likelihood that a student will change from a pattern of unexpected inappropriate behaviour to expected behaviour.

Challenging behaviour may develop and persist because of the consequences it produces, such as gaining access to attention or activities or ending undesired situation.

Identifying the functions that maintain inappropriate behaviour provides a key to the elusive question of 'why' inappropriate behaviour occurs. It provides the information needed to reduce inappropriate behaviour and teach socially acceptable, functional alternative skills that can be used to improve life outcomes.

Thinking about the functions of behaviour

Behaviour communicates a need and has a purpose. A person engages in a behaviour to obtain something or avoid something – adult or peer attention, sensory stimulus, a tangible object, experience or activity.

Professional judgement about behaviour patterns can give an insight into the function of behaviour:

  • Think about and discern whether students are trying to to get or avoid something.
  • Ask the questions: what is the student trying to communicate? What is the behaviour communicating?
  • Take the emotion away from the event or behaviour to allow adults to logically problem-solve.
  • Interventions are more effective when the function, or purpose, of the behaviour is identified.
Problem behaviours are used to obtain or get something, like social attention or sensory input. Alternatively the can be used to escape or avoid something, like something tangible or an activity.
Image: Problem behaviour can be used to obtain or get something, or escape or avoid something.

Applied behaviour analysis

To understand applied behaviour analysis we need to know our ABCs, an initialism for the contingency Antecedent–Behaviour–Consequence, meaning something happens preceding the behaviour (the Antecedent), which in effect causes the Behaviour, which then results in Consequences. ​Moreover:

  • Antecedents are events that happen immediately before and trigger the behaviour.​
  • Behaviour is an observable and measurable act.​
  • Consequences are the resulting event or outcome that occurs immediately following the behaviour.​

Behaviour is any observable and measurable act that the student does – the actions or reactions of the student to the environment or antecedents. Simply stated, this is the response from the student to the antecedent conditions. It is a visible action. ​

In a classroom or non-classroom setting it might include performing or doing what is instructed, noncompliant behaviour or no response at all.

Non-classroom examples include: ​

  1. The teacher signals the start of assembly by raising his hand (antecedent) and students sit for assembly to begin (behaviour). ​
  2. The teacher signals by raising their hand and verbally reminds students to raise their hand during an upcoming discussion. After the teacher’s reminder to raise their hands to get permission to speak (antecedent), Jerry raises his hand and waits to be called on (behaviour). ​

Antecedents are events that occur before the behaviour and trigger the behaviour. Antecedents include cues, prompts, signals, questions or commands from the teacher, as well as reactions from peers that influence student behaviour. They are what happens right before the behaviour occurs. ​

This includes the physical setting, the time of the day, the materials, person or people present, as well as how and what directions are given. ​

Antecedents produce the behaviour that follows. ​

A well-managed classroom setting that includes provision of appropriate materials, establishment clear expectations and specific directions from teachers increase the likelihood of appropriate student behaviour. ​

An example of an antecedent in a non-classroom setting: the teacher raises their hand at the front of the whole school assembly, signalling the need for students to settle and sit for assembly.​

Consequences are the resulting event or outcomes that occur immediately following the behaviour. In the classroom this includes the reaction of the teacher and peers, which might include attention, specific positive feedback or correction. ​

Consequences may increase (reinforce), maintain or decrease (punish) the likelihood of future behaviour.

In the example, when the teacher prompted the school to prepare for the start of assembly by raising their hand (antecedent), students settle and show that they are ready (behaviour). The teacher provides specific positive feedback to the students (consequence). The effect is that students know what it is they are to do. The specific positive feedback (consequence) increases the likelihood of future settled behaviour. In this example, the teacher intervened with antecedents and consequences to obtain the desired behaviour.

Setting events are events that happen outside of the immediate routine that commonly make the problem behaviour more likely. ​

Additionally, there are sometimes setting events which are conditions or events that influence behaviour by temporarily changing the value or effectiveness of reinforcers. ​

Tools to help understanding

This tool is designed to assist with understanding and effectively responding to and preventing frequent minor behaviours.

A few thoughts

​Initially, educators provide external regulation for students by establishing common definitions of desired behaviours, providing antecedent supports and delivering reinforcing or discouraging consequences. Educators use these externally regulated strategies to teach all students the expected behaviour and facilitate consistent use of appropriate behaviour. Over time, educators assist students in developing self or internal regulation. ​

There is a continuum of human motivation including: amotivation, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

  • Amotivation denotes a complete lack of motivation for or value of the activity or knowledge in consideration, or perceived lack of competence with the activity.
  • Extrinsic motivation means an individual engages in an activity to attain a separable outcome. For example, engaging to receive an external item or activity of preference, to fit into a group, to master a skill or gain knowledge needed for later.
  • Intrinsic motivation refers to participating in an activity simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself. ​
Self-determination theory includes 3 needs individuals must fulfill to behave with intrinsic motivation.
  • Competence: succeeding in what is to be done, belief in one’s ability to succeed or self-efficacy.
  • Relatedness: connecting with others or belonging​.
  • Autonomy: being in control of ones’ life or self-determination.
The amount of external regulation or motivation necessary to reach the end goal of students’ consistent display of desired behaviour will be dependent on:​
  • chronological and developmental age of students
  • students’ prior knowledge of and experience with desired behaviours
  • context or setting events
  • student understanding that the school-wide behavioural rules and procedural skills are universal and will increase their overall success in the classroom, school-wide and eventually in life outside of school.​

The majority of human behaviour relies on a certain degree of external motivation, and intrinsic motivation relies on the development of competence, relatedness and autonomy.

Schools can use the science of behaviour to plan for and establish systems that create environments which increase the likelihood that teachers and students will demonstrate desired behaviours.

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