According to Cooper et al. 1987, a principle of behavior is “a description of a relationship between behavior and its controlling variables.”
Understanding the functions (reasons) why a child is behaving a specific way is important to achieving durable behavior change. Additionally, there needs to be motivation to behave in a specific way. And lastly, we need to be far more concerned with what immediately follows (the consequence) than what precedes behavior. Seem a little overwhelming? Don’t worry -- we’re going to sparse it all out in under 800 words!
There are four basic functions of behavior. There are attention (e.g., I tap you on the shoulder and you turn and say “Yes?”), tangible (e.g., toys, iPad, play Duck-Duck-Goose), escape (e.g., to avoid a demand or delay a task), and automatic/sensory (e.g., it “feels” good and there is nothing particularly overt or observable happening – it happens inside the organism). Anyone of these (or a few at the same time) may be the reason behind why a child behaves in a certain way. Some children learn maladaptive ways to achieve outcomes (for example, I want your attention, so I cry). When we see this occurring, we need to find a replacement behavior that will serve the same function, but is more appropriate. The ultimate goal is to also teach an equivalent that works better and faster. When a child is crying to get attention it may be far easier – that is to say, requiring less effort – for a child to merely say your name when on the other side of the room. Thus, we may teach a child to ask for your attention by name as a replacement to crying. Figuring out the function (the reason(s) why) a child is behaving a certain way is one of the key principles that Behavior Analysts use to figure what replacement needs to be taught in an attempt to achieve the same outcome that the negative behavior does.
A second principle is motivation. The child has to “want” to do something. In the field, we have a few types of motivation, but let’s keep it basic and just say that if a child doesn’t want your attention at a particular moment, don’t expect them to cry if that’s their way of telling you they want attention. We also need to look at what can be called satiation and deprivation. If you flood a child with attention (satiate) they may be less motivated to cry for attention. Additionally, if you have withheld (deprived) attention from the child for a long period of time, they may be more motivated to cry if that’s how they’ve learned to get attention.
Lastly, we need to look at the consequences – what immediately follows a particular behavior. So, for our crying example, if a child has learned in the past that if they cry, you start to attend, and they want that attention, you have potentially just increased the probability of crying occurring in the future when they want attention. So, if you were to ignore the crying and wait for an appropriate way for them to get your attention, you would potentially see a decrease in crying and an increase in whatever the alternate behavior is. Furthermore, while it is important to identify certain triggers that the behavior usually occurs after, Behavior Analysts look at the consequences – the reinforcing or punishing effect – to get at a more solid understanding of the behavior. Principles of reinforcement and punishment take time to understand or fully grasp, so they are out of the scope of this blog; however, an upcoming blog post will address this principle with more depth.
Understanding the function of a behavior, the motivation to behave a certain way, and what is following and maintaining a behavior are some of the key principles that Behavior Analysts use when developing interventions. Additionally, these principles hold true for the appropriate behavior as well and apply to all human and non-human organisms. If you want your child to say your name to get your attention, then make sure you are attending to them when they say your name. When we teach a new skill, we follow the appropriate responses with praise and something the child wants. Just remember that all behavior is learned and it serves a function.
That’s our brief, basic overview of some behavioral principles. For more information, feel free to send us an email!
Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., Heward, W.L (Eds.). (1987). Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice Hall.