What does Function of Behaviour mean?
Have you ever had a student who displayed challenging behaviour that baffled you?
None of your usual behaviour tricks and tools seem to work.
The student responds positively to you one day, but the next won’t do anything for you.
Or they love your reward system for a couple of days and then refuse to participate in it.
Sometimes looking at the function of the behaviour can give you clues as to how you can support the student more effectively.
According to Sugai and Lewis (1999), all problem behaviour has a purpose or a function.
This can be either to get something (access) or get away from something (avoid).
Based on our knowledge of the student and their patterns of behaviour we can make an educated guess about what that function may be.
As adults, we often give meaning to student behaviour because of how it looks or feels to us.
Hence teachers will say a student is ‘choosing their behaviour’ or that they are being ‘manipulative’ or that they ‘just don’t want to do any work’.
If we take the perspective that behaviour is communication, and that a child or young person is trying to get their needs met, then our analysis of their behaviour will be much more considered and more likely to be helpful both for us and for the student.
If a student is constantly leaving the classroom ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the student have a positive relationship with the teacher?
- Does the student have positive relationships with other students?
- Is the work interesting, differentiated and relevant?
- Are there sensory issues; noise, smell, visuals, surfaces, heating/cooling?
- Is the environment calm, organised and easily navigated?
- Does the class have a welcoming, positive culture?
Finding the answers to these questions can give you clues as to what needs the student is trying to meet through their behaviour.
If they are trying to gain attention of peers they need to be taught how to make friends and deal with relationship issues and be given opportunities to share positive experiences with peers.
If they are trying to gain attention of adults in inappropriate ways, they need to be given attention for positive behaviours as much as possible and their negative behaviours given as little attention as possible.
The caveat here is that you never ignore behaviour that is dangerous or extremely disruptive.
If a student is hurting adults (hitting, kicking or biting) ask yourself these questions
- Does the student have positive relationships with the adults?
- Are the adults giving the student processing/take-up time following an instruction?
- Is the student being given strategies to manage their emotions?
- Is the young person being forces to comply either physically or verbally?
- Is the adult getting into the student’s personal space?
- Is the student being given a choice before their behaviour escalates?
- Are strategies in place to recognise when a student in becoming heightened?
A student who physically hurts others may be communicating that way because they lack the skills to express themselves in more appropriate ways.
When they feel upset, they may lash out because they don’t have the language or emotional intelligence to say that they are angry, sad or annoyed.
A student who displays this behaviour needs to be taught appropriate responses to feelings of anger and sadness.
For example, they could learn strategies such as telling someone how they feel, getting a drink of water, going for a run or going to a quiet space.
Teaching these skills can be part of your social and emotional learning for the whole class (because they are necessary skills for everyone) and then given additional treatment either individually or in a small group.
Ideally the skills need are also modelled by the teacher e.g. ‘I feel angry right now.
I will take 5 deep breaths’, then practised by the students while they are calm, and praised when the student uses the skill appropriately.
Adults who work with students who can be aggressive, must have their own safety as a priority and be vigilant about keeping out of the student’s personal space.
It can be difficult to work with students who have challenging behaviour, but it is important to remember that they are simply children and young people trying to get their needs met in the best way they know how.