Functional Analysis

This section is to give an overview of different models, different therapeutic orientations and techniques
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Functional Analysis

Post by BenJMan »

Functional Analysis

A Brief Introduction

Functional analysis (FA) within psychology relies on the antecedent - behaviour - consequence contingency outlined by Skinner and established in operant conditioning (think back!!) during his work with rats. This theory was further developed with understanding around the establishing operation/motivating operation. (So, for an example from my own contingencies: A-offered a martini, B-drink martini, C- enjoy taste, makes me feel nice. But that doesn't mean I will always drink a martini when offered, my establishing operation will be based on where I am, how many I have had already, and how I feel at the time.)

In terms of definition, A-B (antecedent -behaviour) paradigm was introduced first (as in behaviour modification treatment) and interventions based on it involved the use of strong reinforcers/punishers to achieve a change in behaviour. However, as no function was identified, it was basically fighting windmills as one behaviour was replaced by others, still serving a similar function but possibly more difficult to manage.

The terms 'functional assessment' came in later, when it was recognised that consequences determined the function of the behaviour and it's maintaining factors. When you know what is the function of the behaviour, you can try to replace it with more appropriate behaviour (reinforce alternatives) and withdraw reinforcement for inappropriate behaviour, eg. praise for saying 'mum' in a quiet voice but do not reinforce screaming in a middle of a supermarket (difficult though!).

Reinforcement of more appropriate/functional alternatives is really the core here and it frequently focuses on teaching more functional communication skills/social skills. More appropriate skills - more 'natural' reinforcement in daily situations - more likely behaviour will be maintained.

Important to remember are the two core principles of operant conditioning: Positive and Negative Reinforcement. Please remember (and I always forget myself) that negative reinforcement is not punishment, it is the removal of a stimulus which causes a behavioural change e.g. When you take paracetamol for a headache, you remove the negative effect of the headache and therefore learn to take these pills again in the future when you get a headache.

Functional analysis in a nutshell works on the assumption that behaviour is never random and, in all cases, serves some kind of function. I currently use functional analysis within the Learning Disability branch of a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service and so I will be detailing our approach under these circumstances. The reason I find this important to point out is because the application of FA can be so varied across services. We use FA to identify the function of ‘challenging behaviour’ within an LD environment, whilst many of the basic principles will remain constant, when used in another context FA may be manipulated to suit the situation and the individual. However most of the current research around FA is drawn from children with an LD presentation.

Core principles of functional analysis/behavioural treatment rely on both reinforcement (strengthening of a contingency) and punishment (weakening of a contingency). Positive contingencies refer to something being added to the situation, and negative to something being taken away.

Functions of Behaviour

FA splits the functions of behaviour into four main categories:


Attention is one of the most basic drives of the human race. Without the ability to gain attention we would simply die, and would have done so many thousands of years ago. From birth we are biologically programmed to gain the attention of our primary care giver in order that they provide us with our basic needs. It is therefore not surprising that attention is an extremely powerful reinforcer for behaviour. It is also why so many of us now avoid the term ‘attention seeking’ when framed as a negative, we all seek attention (or care elicit) in different ways and we are programmed to do so, some people’s programming is just different to our own!

Example: A child in a supermarket says ‘mum’ and is ignored as the mother is busy. The child follows for several minutes with ‘mum mum mum mum mum’, when the mother eventually turns round and angrily says ‘WHAT?’, regardless of the nature of the response, the child has learned that repeatedly saying ‘mum’ is an effective means of garnering attention when an initial attempt has failed. The child has been positively reinforced by gaining attention and the mother negatively reinforced by the loss of an adverse stimulus.


Put quite simply, the desire to escape or avoid a negative situation is a strong motivation for behaviour. We will all avoid situations which make us anxious or distressed where possible and we learn behaviours that are effective in allowing us to avoid such situations.

Example: A child realises they have not completed their homework for school the next day. They have learnt from previous experience that attending school without their homework will result in an embarrassing and unpleasant interaction with their teacher. Therefore the child feigns illness to their parents and is allowed to stay off school the next day. The child has successful avoided a negative situation and is likely to therefore repeat this behaviour to avoid future situations.

Self Stimulation

Self stimulation covers any behaviour which is designed to stimulate the person. This could be applied to actions which alleviate boredom, physically stimulate the person... anything which causes an increase in arousal within the person.

Example: You sit at home bored, you are so immensely bored that you have been through the TV listings 3 times and cannot see a single show you want to watch, however as a result of being so bored you switch the channel to The Jeremy Kyle show (I can fathom no other reason than extreme boredom I’m afraid). Watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, whilst perhaps not your first choice, occupies your brain just enough so that you stop channel flicking and feel less bored. In future you will be more likely to watch said show when feeling the symptoms of boredom.

Tangible Rewards

A fairly obvious one here and the one we are all perhaps most familiar with! When someone receives something tangible they want after behaviour occurs, the chance of that behaviour occurring again increases. The main thing to remember with tangible rewards is the difference between a reward and a bribe. In simple terms it can be described as follows:

- A reward is something given after a desirable behaviour has occurred and in an effort to encourage the behaviour for the future.

- A bribe has two main components which distinguish it from a reward, firstly, a bribe has a moral element to it, a bribe is associated with something negative and potentially negative for someone else. Secondly and perhaps more importantly when dealing with children, a bribe is given before the desired behaviour has occurred, in an effort to ensure that the person does what you want them to do.

Example: A child is asked to clean the car by their parents and told that if they clean the car, they will receive their pocket money for the week. The child cleans the car and is given the pocket money. Ta da, simple as that! (And as any parent will tell you, this is how a reward system always works and children always do things in this simple fashion when asked)

The Process of Functional Analysis

There are a number of ways that functional analysis can actually be conducted and these will differ depending on the preference and training of the clinician involves. I have been trained in and use the STAR approach and so this is what I will detail here.

The STAR approach breaks down an assessment of behaviour into four areas; Settings, Trigger, Action and Response. Confusingly this is not the order in which you will use these categories… they are just ordered this way so that the acronym is STAR instead of ASTR!

So, the STAR approach uses these four categories to define the information which forms our functional analysis. I will now define each of the categories briefly in the order by which they are approached using this methodology:

1. Action – Action refers to the target behaviour (target behaviour being that behaviour which we would like to identify the cause of and potentially change). Within this section there should be as much information as possible about the actual behaviour itself including duration, frequency, intensity etc.

2. Setting – Setting refers to all factors to be considered about the situation surrounding the event. The easiest way to break these down is into Internal/External factors. Internal factors are those things internal to the person at that time which should be considered as part of the situation. Examples of internal factors could be; medication, health conditions, level of arousal, general mental state etc. These are just a few examples of a multitude of possible considerations. Similarly with external factors, these are the factors about the environment surrounding the service user. For example; location, things in the room, temperature, level of sunlight, people in proximity, noises, time of day etc.

3. Trigger – Quite simply the trigger is not necessarily the cause of the event as many people presume, but rather the event(s) immediately prior to the target behaviour. This could be a very small environmental change or could even be an internal factor such as a service user reaching a threshold of hunger, making them more irritable and causing a hyper vigilance to pre-existing triggers such as noise. As much detail as possible about what was going on just prior to the target behaviour should be included, whether it seems benign on not.

4. Result – What happened after the event? How did things play out? Consider the functions discussed earlier, did the person gain attention, escape a situation, seem stimulated or receive a reward? Not much more too it that that really!

In each category the person completing a STAR will give as much detail as possible about what was going on when the target behaviour occurred. When I use the term ‘detail’ above it is in the strongest sense of the term. FA requires that any detail put forward (which is as much as possible!) be specific enough to be entirely without any room for interpretation or confusion. The best way to explain this is with yet another example, I will start with an inappropriate example to write down and follow with an appropriate one:

- Insufficient – ‘Action’ – John punched one of the care home staff

- Getting Better– ‘Action’ – John punched Lesley, one of the care home staff twice

- Sufficient – ‘Action’ John punched Lesley, one of the care home staff twice in the left arm with enough force to leave red marks but not to bruise.

The issue here could have been something as simple as Lesley was wearing a particularly luminous jumper which was causing John distress and his method of communicating this was to punch the jumper Lesley was wearing. With an appropriate level of detail we can establish that John was not trying to hurt Lesley seriously but that something about Lesley in particular was causing distress. The above is an example of an ‘Action’ section; the same rules about detail apply to all other sections.

A useful exercise to demonstrate how much detail we are not immediately aware of on a daily basis, is to simply try to create a list of every detail about the room you are currently sitting in, for example, a single item of the room I am currently in:

- I have a notice board on my wall
- The notice board is white with a silver frame
- The silver frame has rubber corners
- Some of the red pen is smudged and looks untidy
- The sun is currently shining on the notice board creating a glare effect
- There are combinations of names and dates on the notice board
- The are a number of lines on which to write things
- These lines are not straight
- The light on the notice board is causing it to reflect a blurred image of the outside of my office window
- If I move my head the reflections on the notice board move as well

I could go on... and that is just the detail on the notice board currently in front of me, a single item in an office with probably another 1000+ items which could be described. Any one of the above things could be something which causes one of our LD service users (were they in my office) to exhibit a challenging behaviour. It could be that the glare from the notice board is hurting their eyes or that they dislike the colour red.

Making A Change

Strangely, perhaps the most important section of functional analysis is going to be the shortest section that I write. Using the above tools in combination with a lot of time, patience and effort it should be possible to begin to establish patterns to behaviour and the triggers for/functions of behaviour. In an LD population it could be that this assists you to better meet a child’s basic care needs, if applied to others this process could help to identify unconscious decision making, reasons for complex behaviours and much more.

The big question then is how that information aids us in making a positive change. Well the answer is quite straightforward, once we have identified the function for a particular behaviour; we can find new ways of meeting the need currently met by the target behaviour. If a child bangs their head against the wall because they don’t like the loud noise of your food blender, I’m sure you could all come up with a reasonable solution? Do not expose the child to the food blender. Naturally not all circumstances are this simple (although many are) and functional analysis often identifies complex behaviour patterns which need to be broken down into manageable steps in order to change.

There is no set format for this ‘change’ and if it is a simple one to make then make it! However everyone will have their own training and knowledge around FA and the possible integration of different interventions in order to make real change.

This feels like a slightly rambling ending so I’m going to stop! I hope you’ve found this a useful (if slightly wordy) introduction to Functional Analysis.
Any Psychologists out there want to come and join us? We have an opportunity for an additional clinical/practitioner psychologist to join our highly skilled, tight knit, diverse clinical team
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