The Older Dad

The wise and older parent

Stopping Problem Behaviors Before They Take Hold

Understanding The Functions of Behaviors Can Stop a Problem Before it Starts


Every great novel starts with a single word. The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with the first step. And….every problem behavior could have been prevented, if the first step had been understood. No problem behavior appears out of the blue, and preventing problem behaviors comes from knowing how to spot them early.

The Great Culprits that Cause Behavior Problems

Behavioral therapists credit Brian Iwata with advancing behavioral change well-beyond Skinner. Iwata created a way to think about behaviors that many now call functional analysis. While early behavioral psychologists asked the question “What is the behavior a function of?” Iwata asked “What is the function (purpose) of the behavior?” Consider the difference in this example: The car starts because you turned the ignition key, but the real question is "Why you started the car?"

V. Mark Durand, in the early 1980s, also addressed the same issue, using the term “motivation.” He constructed four reasons that people act: a) to escape something unpleasant, b) to obtain something they desire/need, c) to gain attention from others, or d) to stimulate themselves when bored. Research, on the functions of behavior, generally supports these four factors as keys for understanding why anyone will do something.

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Motivation for a behavior combines with a trigger to cause almost all behaviors. Children, and adults, will be motivated to obtain, or escape, something if they feel the need to strongly enough. They react with the specific behavior based on which triggers exist, and how strongly history as associated those triggers to different reactions. The triggers tell us what the behavior is a function of, but not what the function of the behavior is.

While teasing out the associations to triggers is very complex, discovering the motivators is less complex.  When a situation lacks enough of something, or contains something sufficiently unpleasant, we will be motivated to obtain what we need (or escape our pain). We will find it easier to understand what the function of the behavior is.


Using the motivators, we can identify the function(s) of a behavior, even when that behavior occurs infrequently. The key to prevention, according to Iwata and others (for example, Filter and Alvarez’s book Functional Behavioral Assessment), exists within the classes of motivators. Consider  these four steps to preventing a problem behavior from settling into someone’s typical reaction patterns.

Step 1:  Awareness—Educators and public health professionals prepare themselves to notice behaviors that undermine the success of others by keenly watching for unhealthy reactions that are disruptive to someone’s growth and progress.

Step 2:  Understanding—Once professionals see an unhealthy reaction, they label it as a behavior to be prevented. The shift from the all-too-often blaming idea can be challenging for a professional. But, to prevent the development of unhealthy behavior patterns, we must continually understand behaviors as reactions that can be retaught.

Step 3:  Analysis—Professionals now turn attention to the environment, including obvious signs of someone’s internal emotions, to decide which motivators might be at work. For example, if children learn that doing poorly in class will cause painful outcomes (embarrassment, shame, punishment), then a lack of adequate skills can produce a motivation to escape the situation. Often disruptive behaviors begin early in the school year under such circumstances.  Or, if children lack enough attention for appropriate behaviors (for example, sitting quietly), disruptive behaviors can serve the purpose to receive lots of attention. We can best prevent problem behaviors when we consider the motivators at work in early evidence of infrequently occurring problem behaviors.

Step 4: Intervention—Once we identify the possible motivators of a behavior, we adjust the environment to provide enough rewards or skills, tailored to someone’s specific needs, so that any infrequent problem behaviors decrease. For example, if some children become bored during naptime at pre-school, providing stimulating activities can help prevent acting out behaviors such as making noise or getting off the cot. Of course, professionals should be sure that the activities truly stimulate the children, rather than assuming something is interesting: often, pre-school children are given books while lying on a cot—yet they have not yet developed enough reading skills to make the activity interesting. In contrast, music or age-appropriate books-on-tape could stimulate them more effectively. For the professional, the key to knowing that they have identified both the correct motivator and the right activity simply is this: the problem behavior becomes less frequent, and eventually stops.

Prevention: The Better Solution

Prevention through functional behavioral interventions can not only prevent problem behaviors, it can also save organizations resources. The time and energy costs to change a well-established problem behavior typically exceed the costs of preventing them. And, we can protect vulnerable children or adults from wasting costs of their own time and energy when they are less productive or don’t learn. Prevention is the better solution for all of us.




Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is the Director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy of Greater Columbus and a Clinical Faculty member in the Dept. of Psychiatry at OSU.


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