Functions of Behavior: Attention

In the second entry of our Functions of Behavior series we address Attention as a function.

As knowledge of the functions of behavior increases, a clearer picture begins to emerge of the driving force behind every action we see from an individual. Knowing is half the battle but we can’t know for sure the function of any behavior at first glance. This is where data comes in to play. We’ll go more in depth on data later in this series but for now it’s important to know we need more than just a few hours or even a few days’ worth of data to have a clear picture of the function.

As we spend time with an individual we must note not only what the child does, but also: what do they seem to expect from you, what calms them, what gets them back on track, how frequent is this behavior happening? All these pieces of information, along with the knowledge of functions, can help hypothesize what the child is really hoping to achieve.

In this installment the function we will discuss is attention. Attention maintained behaviors are simply to gain attention from parents, teachers, peers, etc. This function can be very challenging. While it can be easier for us to control our reactions, it’s much harder to keep peers, friends, or even pets from giving the individual the reaction they seek.


Tucker’s Favorite Teacher

When Tucker started ABA therapy 2 years ago he didn’t like many of his teachers. One teacher always knew how to make Tucker’s day, though. Mr. Daniel always knows how to make him laugh and is great at helping him stay calm. Mr. Daniel has been training some new teachers to work with Tucker. Sometimes when Tucker is struggling or getting frustrated Mr. Daniel will jump in to the session to help out. Now when Tucker sees Mr. Daniel, no matter how he feels, he acts upset and frustrated until Mr. Daniel comes over to help him work through it.

Tucker pretends to be frustrated to get the attention of his favorite teacher.

What we could do

While it is a great privilege and necessity to build relationships with our students, ABA Teachers should also know when it is appropriate to step in. Mr. Daniel should allow the new teachers to help Tucker. If he sees problems, he should address them outside of the session to aid the new teachers in pairing with Tucker and help them learn how best to work with him. It is also important that the new teachers are allowed to build rapport with Tucker free of Mr. Daniel.

Sammie’s got Jokes

Sammie likes to make people laugh. She loves when she can say something silly and get the whole group smiling or laughing. She is very clever! Today at “Group time”, after talking about animals, Sammie begins making duck sounds and her classmates can’t help but to giggle.

Sammie tells jokes to get attention from her peers.

What we could do

We might position Sammie in such a way she cannot see her peers laughing at her antics.


Our instincts often get the best of us when maladaptive behaviors are a surprise, so it can be a challenge to not give attention to inappropriate behavior. Any reaction, often even the slightest grimace, can serve to reinforce attention seeking behaviors. Luckily, we take data and communicate with the whole team to develop consistent programming to address the behaviors for attention. We use this to prepare ourselves for whatever may come so we can make sure when behaviors occur, we can react or refrain from reacting effectively and not maintain that behavior.

Another challenge with attention-maintained behaviors arises when self-injury is the behavior. We would never knowingly allow someone to injure themselves, so simply ignoring the action is not an option. We’re then left with a few options. We can put protective measures in place that limit their ability to hurt themselves (i.e. padding, protective sleeves, etc.) or the behavior can be blocked while we avoid eye contact or providing any response.

As with many things in ABA Therapy, reducing the behaviors comes back down to reinforcement. When we provide attention for appropriate and adaptive skills as often as we can, we are more effective in teaching an individual that there are more effective ways of getting the attention they desire.