FBA Part II: Function of Positive Reinforcement

Disclaimer: Conducting an FBA is a very individualized  process that must consider the instructional setting, the learner's environment, and who will carry out the intervention. The following post contains suggestions to guide the process, and is not intended to be applicable for every learner or every situation. Its also important to note that the usefulness of an FBA extends beyond individuals with Autism.

For my original post explaining how to conduct a FBA, click here: http://www.iloveaba.com/2012/02/everyday-fba.html

Photo source: easypeasykids.com.au

This post is for caregivers (parents, teachers, therapists, etc.) who have conducted a FBA to determine the function of a challenging behavior and it is: Positive Reinforcement or Attention.

Attention seeking behaviors can be tricky to intervene on, because most attention seeking behaviors really GRAB people’s attention….that’s kind of the point. :-)
 If a child bites your arm, throws a plate of food at you, or yells out curse words in the classroom, you will probably have a reaction to those things. However, your reaction is exactly what the child wants. The good news is you don’t have to ignore these behaviors forever, which is impossible anyway. What you need to do is show the child an easier, more appropriate way to gain the attention they want.
 If I want some cake, I can choose to bake the cake myself or I can just buy a pre-made cake from the store. Either way, I’m still getting what I want. Think of behavior like that; the goal is to teach the child an alternative way to get what they want. It takes much more effort for a child to throw themselves on the floor and tantrum to get Mom’s attention, than it does to hand her a card that says “Play”.

What do attention seeking behaviors look like?

Attention seeking behaviors are going to produce the desired goal of attention. This could be “good” or “bad” attention (I don't use these terms myself, but many do). The student in class who yells out curse words to make his peers laugh is getting “good” attention. After the other kids laugh the teacher may deliver a reprimand and scold the student, which is “bad” attention. However, both sources of attention are feeding the problem behavior. To an attention seeking kid, he/she doesn’t care if you are praising them or scolding them: attention is attention.
Common attention seeking behaviors include:  cursing/potty mouth, talking out in the classroom, crying/whining, lying, off task behaviors, shouting/talking loudly, bothers peers in the classroom, screaming, insults people, out of seat behavior in the classroom, kicks the back of your seat in the car, hits/swats at peers, spits, throws objects, and breaks toys.

Why do children engage in attention seeking behaviors?

Attention seeking behaviors serve unmet needs, and may occur or increase if the child is  unattended, unsupervised, or see others getting attention and they are not. Typically these children either don’t know how to appropriately gain attention, or when they use appropriate methods of gaining attention it isn’t rewarded. You may be thinking “Why wouldn’t someone reward the child if he/she is appropriately trying to gain attention?” That issue is much more common than many people realize. Think about a 4 year old who is grocery shopping with her Dad. She is being quiet, appropriate, and keeping her hands to herself, which her Dad is grateful for so he can focus on shopping. After several minutes in the store, the child begins to make noises and knock things off shelves. Her father scolds her, and gives her a short lecture in the middle of the aisle. Do you see what happened right there? The daughter received no attention for appropriate behavior, and TONS of attention for inappropriate behavior.

How do I handle attention seeking behaviors?

Once you determine the function of a behavior, you need to do 2 things in order to reduce the behavior: stop reinforcing (feeding) the inappropriate behavior, and teach the child what to do instead. If you have other children, or if the setting is a classroom, then it’s important to consider peer attention as well. If you are ignoring your son spitting out food at the dinner table, but your other 3 children laugh and stare, then the behavior is still being reinforced. Smiles, eye contact, and facial expression are all powerful forms of attention. You may need to specifically teach the other children how to react when the inappropriate behavior occurs.

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