The Four Research Based Functions of Behavior: Using the Language of Applied Behavior Analysis

When I ask my Supervision and Test Prep Students to identify the four research-based functions of behavior, I have increasingly heard folks substitute 'Sensory' for Automatic Reinforcement and put 'Tangible' in the place of Access.

The mistaken identification of 'Sensory' rather than Automatic Reinforcement presents a different and, potentially, even problematic substitution to the four research based functions of behavior in its inference that 'sensory problems' are somehow a component part - a 'function' - of an autism diagnosis. Not only is this inaccurate but it creates a strongly misleading hypothetical construct.

Automatic Reinforcement, which includes smoking, tapping one's leg incessantly and twirling pens (one of my favorites!) to a wider range of stereotypical behaviors, is more than just a sensory feedback loop. Closely related is the point that Automatic Reinforcement is not socially mediated but acts more - I'd argue - as a kind of free operant.

Automatic Reinforcement, even with an active sensory feedback loop, can still quickly become environmentally intertwined. Say, for instance, a child who engages in leg tapping in school without even being self aware is suddenly reprimanded by his teacher...and this then happens several times. The child may come to realize that he can stop the class, get attention, perhaps be told to sit in the back by himself until he can 'get his leg under control' simply by leg tapping.

With this action by the teacher, a functional /escape avoidance behavior has been mistakenly taught and shaped. What WAS Automatic Reinforcement now has taken on both Automatic Reinforcement and Escape/Avoidance functions. It then becomes up to us, and a good ecological functional behavioral assessment, to tweak the different conditions in order to respond most effectively.

I've also had a number of folks identify 'Tangible' in place of the Access function.

There is no presumption that an individual is trying to access tangibles since tangibles are but one element of an Access function. Access can mean tangibles; it can mean different activities/social events; it can mean access to idiosyncratic preferences...like sitting and tapping ones leg. Access can also mean a blend across these variables.

Access and Attention functions may become closely interconnected since to get something one wants, the person - and especially a child - often still needs to first get the attention of a primary other. Here, Access would be primary with Attention a secondary function. This is also a reason why quick FBA report devices too often wind up defaulting to Attention whether or not Attention actually is the primary function.

I routinely examine behavioral relationships beyond the four primary functions which I consider secondary functional behavioral relationships as part of my full ecological behavioral assessment process. Among these 'secondary functional behavioral relationships' is one referenced in work done by Greg Hanley and identified (slightly paraphrased here) as 'expected response to mands.'

Such 'revisions' to the language of Applied Behavior Analysis are among the reasons so many competent people are not passing the BCBA exam and then sometimes trip over it more than a time or two. Drilled rote memorization and engaging mock exams/test review processes which fail to explain or give any reasons why questions are either right or wrong are additional reasons for this lack of success.

Once folks receive their board certification and start work as entry level Board Certified (Clinical) Behavior Analysts, we can do the very much needed work on and further development of our field. But to pass the BCBA exam; to start with a strong foundation as a new Clinical Behavioral Analyst, our language and application must remain consistent.

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