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.

This post is devoted to discussing social attention. Some practitioners consider attention-maintained behavior to include access to tangibles, therefore having three functions of behavior (attention/tangible, escape, and automatic/sensory). I consider tangible access to be a different function of behavior than attention, therefore in this post when I refer to attention, I am referring to social attention. For our purposes we are looking at social attention as the function and tangible access as a different function for a different post.

What is Attention-Maintained Behavior?

When a behavior is maintained by, or a function of gaining attention, we call it attention-maintained. This means that attention is the function of that particular behavior. The person is engaging in a behavior to get attention. This attention can be what people call "negative" or "positive" attention. Have you ever had a student who is a class clown? You may hypothesize that their behavior is maintained by attention - perhaps "positive" attention from their peers' laughs and high fives, and "negative" attention from their teacher with punitive responses and being told to sit down. What makes a behavior maintained by its function means that whatever they are getting out of engaging in that behavior is reinforcing. They would not continue to do it if it was punishing. This is, by definition, the properties of reinforcement and punishment. If a behavior continues and increases, given the current contingencies and consequences (what occurs after the behavior is evoked), the consequences are reinforcing. If the behavior decreases, then the consequences are punishing. In the above example with the class clown, if the teacher's direction was the stay after class as a result of the students' behavior, and the behavior did not change (meaning, decrease), then staying after class isn't punishing to the student, at least in the context of the reinforcing value of the peers' praise. This is just one reason why it's so important to look at the behavior as a whole, not just in a vacuum, as well as testing all the contingencies at play to determine the real function(s) of the behavior(s).

How Do I Know if a Behavior Is Attention-Maintained?

The assessment will tell you what the hypothesized function is, but there are some general indicators that will help you to determine if it's maintained by attention or another function (or multiply maintained!).

The most effective technique to determining the function is to manipulate the contingencies and see their effect on the behavior. In the above class clown example, some clues that could indicate the calling out or joking behavior is maintained by attention, is that if the class ignores the behavior, and the behavior stops or decreases, you may hypothesize it's maintained by the social attention from peers. When you change the consequence, or what happens after the behavior occurs, you can see how the different consequences effect the future frequencies of that behavior.

The biggest clue to look at your data where you identify what you or another did after the behavior occurred. Often this is on an incident report or ABC data sheet. After the individual engaged in the behavior, what happened? If it involves some type of social responses from others, it's likely attention-maintained (provided this is how the behavior and consequences typically go, indicating these interactions are reinforcing for that behavior because they continue). Sometimes these may not seem so obvious. If a student is acting out in class and gets removed to sit in the back with the paraprofessional one-on-one, you may think that it will decrease the acting out behavior, though it may in fact be reinforcing it by allowing one-on-one time with an adult (attention-maintained).

As my mentor always says, "it's hard to taste the flavor when you're sitting in the soup" (I think he made that one up), which essentially means it's hard to have an objective view when you're in it day to day. This is the perfect reason why it's helpful to have others, like a BCBA, conduct this assessment, as an objective observer. If you don't have this resource and will be conducting this assessment yourself, take your teacher glasses off and put on a pair of objective ones. Only read the information for the words, not what you felt in the moment when those behaviors were occurring. Practice being objective in your analysis of your data and you can really make some change in your programming.

ABA at Play: functions of behavior, attention-maintained behavior, reinforcement, behavioral contingencies, data collection

What are some examples you see in your life that may be attention-maintained behaviors? How do you know?


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