What is Behavior?
The definition of behavior is simple: anything a person says or does. In the behavior analytic world, we like behavior to be observable and measurable, so something we can see and take data on. Lots of parents will describe their child's behavior as "awful," "terrible," or "not that bad" and this means something to them, but as a behavior analyst I always ask what parents mean by that, exactly. Some parents will describe "terrible" behavior as 6 tantrums a day that last up to an hour each, while another parent may describe "terrible" behavior as one 20 minute tantrum, twice a week. It's all relative, but what matters is what behaviors are important to each particular family, and what they expect from their children on a daily basis. All behavior has the potential to change, but first it is important to understand why a behavior is occurring in the first place. Let's take a look at the 4 basic reasons why any behavior occurs:
To Get Access to a Tangible. In this function of behavior, your child is behaving in a certain way because there is something they want to get. For example, your child wants to watch TV (tangible), so they ask to watch TV (behavior). The more likely scenario is you've already told them no, so now they are crying and whining (behavior) because they want to watch their show (tangible). If you understand why a behavior is occurring, then you can be prepared to handle, better yet prevent, future behaviors from occurring. Putting this into action, if you know your child is going to want to watch TV at a certain time, you can let them know they need to ask politely first (or do their chores, homework, etc.), and then they can watch.
To Escape a Task or Demand. In this function of behavior, your child is engaging in a behavior to escape (or avoid) a task or demand. For example, you tell your child it's time to clean up (demand) and they flop on the floor in a tantrum (behavior). Or you tell them it's time to do homework (task) and they stomp their feet and whine (behavior). To prevent this function of behavior from occurring, you can give your child warnings that a task is coming up or will be ending soon. You can also tell them they can request more time with a preferred activity (if allowed) before time is up.
To Gain Your Attention. In this function of behavior, your child is engaging in a behavior to get your attention. This is the most overlooked and hardest function to see for most parents, but is easily seen in young babies. A baby will often put dirt / leaves / remotes / etc. in their mouth (behavior) after being told not to, in order to get their parent to look at them (attention). In an older child, they may do tricks or deliberately draw all over the walls (behavior) in order to get their parent to talk to / yell at them (attention). Most parents think it can't be for attention because they are yelling or punishing them, but bad attention is better than no attention to a child (and sometimes adults).
To Satisfy a Sensory Need. In this function of behavior, your child is engaging in a behavior to fulfill a sensory need. For example, they are jumping up and down on a bed(behavior) because they have a lot of energy they need to get out (sensory need). Or, they are itching their arm (behavior) in order to relieve the itchy feeling (sensory need). Most "unwanted" child behaviors that fall into this category are things like teeth grinding, chewing on ice, picking their nose, etc. In this scenario it's often best to understand what the sensory need is, and then provide an appropriate replacement behavior that is more socially acceptable instead. If a child is grinding their teeth, giving them gum to chew on or a chewy food item may help satisfy that sensory need.
So next time your child is throwing themselves on the floor of the supermarket, acting like the world is coming to an end (and successfully embarrassing you at the same time), try and take a step back and remember what was happening just before the behavior occurred. If you're not sure, start to make a list of your child's tantrum behaviors. Write down everything that was happening just before the behavior occurred, even things that you wouldn't necessarily think are related. Do this a couple of times, and sure enough a pattern will start to emerge. Once you've figured out why the behavior is occurring, you can take charge and put a stop to it.