What’s the Function: Sensory

Last but not least, we're learning about automatically-maintained behavior as a function, after learning about attention, escape, and tangible functions. 



Sensory, or automatic behavior is usually pretty "easy" to see, but don't be fooled! Oftentimes a behavior that is labeled sensory is strictly sensory, but not always. It sometimes can start out as an automatic behavior, but after being paired with other reinforcement, such as escape from task demands, begins to carry an additional function. For example, my sister had a habit of cracking her knuckles, which was automatically-maintained (more on what that is below). My other sister hated when she would crack them and would always yell and whine and beg her to stop. This resulted in my knuckle-cracking sister to engage in this behavior more frequently when the contingencies were such that she would be reinforced by the absence of my other sisters (meaning, when my other sister was being annoying, my knuckle-cracking sister would engage in the behavior, my other sister would get upset and leave, and my knuckle-cracking sister would escape the annoying behavior by engaging in a previously strict sensory behavior). Phew.

All About Behavior Contracts + a Freebie!


Behavior contacts are a common ABA strategy used to change behavior. Whether you have behaviors to decrease or increase, behavior contracts can be an excellent intervention for your learners of a wide range of ages and abilities. I've used them in classrooms, day programs, residential facilities, family homes, and with individuals who live on their own in the community. One of the great things about behavior contracts is the ability to tailor it to your individual and the context in which the strategy will be used.

What is a behavior contract?

A behavior contract (also called contingency contracts) is a contract between the learner and those in his/her environment. It is often written in tandem with the teacher/caregiver/staff and the learner. I always emphasize that this is a tag-team approach. The learner is much more likely to be invested in a contract that he/she helped write than just another set of rules the teacher is telling them to follow.

What’s the Function: Tangible

We've covered an overview of the importance of determining functions of behavior and have looked closely at attention-maintained and escape-maintained behavior. Today, we're diving into the world of tangible as a function of behavior.


Ah, tangible-maintained behavior. This one is a pretty common function for some of our younger guys. You may have dealt with this with your own children (think back to those lovely Saturday mornings that ended with a sibling getting punch so their brother could be in charge of the remote). 

What’s the Function: Escape

We've learned about the importance of determining the function of a learner's behavior, and we learned more about what attention-maintained behavior is. Today, we're looking at escape as a function of behavior.


Escape is often a function that sneaks up on you, in my experience. Sometimes the escape function seems obvious. Other times, it disguises itself as another function, primarily attention. Also, what looks like "escape" (the topography, or what the behavior looks like) such as running away, isn't really escape at all. Which is all the more reason why it's important to assess these functions prior to making hypotheses about them. 

What’s the Function: Attention

So now that we know a bit about why we need to care about function, and what the different functions of behavior are, let's dive right into the specific common functions of behavior. Starting with attention.

This is a common function that gets thrown around more than any others, at least in my practice. Whenever I start to explore the functions of behavior, and ask a caregiver or provider why they think the person is engaging in a specific behavior, many times the answer I get is "to get a reaction out of me" or "to irritate me" or "because he/she knows it bothers me." These responses all point to a function of attention, although we know we need more assessing to determine if this is, in fact, the function of the behavior. 

Attention-maintained behavior (or behavior that serves a function of attention) is easy for people to understand, especially with people with special needs. Parents will often assume a behavior occurs because the person is looking for some kind of attention. And sometimes this is the case! But we always need to do more than just ask the parent what they think, although this is a useful technique I use as part of my assessment. There are many other ways to assess the function, which will be covered in a post about running FBAs.

Behavior: What’s the Function?

This month, we’ll be talking about the functions of behaviors that we often categorize to develop treatment goals and decrease problem behaviors. Determining what the function of behavior, or the why of the behavior is so important to really target treatment. Without knowing the reason a behavior is occurring, we can't effectively (or efficiently) change it.

So how do we categorize behaviors? What do we need to know to determine the function? Let's take a look at some ways to help formulate your treatment goals based on functions of behavior.


What Are The Functions of Behavior?

Standardized Testing: Portfolio Assessments

I think back to my days in the classroom and shudder at the thought of our state-wide standardized assessment. I'm sure all of you have come across this at some point in your career -some states are starting as early as first grade for these tests! As an educator in a special education school, I usually had at least one student who qualified for the alternative assessment. These were reserved for children who would not be able to take a paper and pencil test, regardless of the accommodations provided. One year, I had three students. What this means is that my life for the months from January to April (when they were due) was devoted to making portfolios, because if anyone knows about these tests, the student's success relies heavily on the aesthetics of the stupid binder presentation, and much less on the actual academic work. But I digress...




I will keep my thoughts about state-testing to myself (from now on), particularly the portfolio-version of this test. You can make your own opinions based on the information. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for the state of Massachusetts has provided the following information about the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System Alternate Assessment (MCAS Alt):

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