Complicated Behaviors

Posted by Stephanie Lawless on 11/30/2021

Over the summer we had the opportunity to take a little cruise around Lake Michigan on the Friends Good Will, a replica historic topsail sloop. (Big sailboat) A few times before we left the dock my five year old asked me questions about what would happen if the ship sank. I told him everything would be  fine. He accepted this answer and we docked.  While we were on the boat he was ALL OVER the place.  He seemed like he was having fun but it was really difficult to manage him and I had a real concern he was going to go over the edge. As he ducked and dodged around the boat I found myself struggling not to be that mom who loses her cool in front of everyone. My husband asked what I thought was going on with our son. I said it could be that he was anxious about being on the boat, it could be because he was hungry since it was lunch time (aka HANGRY), or it could have been overstimulating being on the boat, OR he was tired because we had been camping.... Then my husband said something that changed my entire perspective. He said (drum roll please….) IT COULD BE ALL OF IT.  Now, I imagine you are thinking this is obvious and wondering why I thought this was a big deal. The thing is, I have a tendency to oversimplify behavior challenges to help me focus on the solution. When I am dealing with an issue I want to break it down into as small of chunks as I can so that I can tackle each variable to find an answer.  Try the simplest solution first then go from there. It helps me from getting overwhelmed by it all. 


Doing FBAs forces me to consider one main function but it is sometimes necessary to consider multiple functions. The PENT site refers to common functions using an actorym S.E.A.T. 

Sensory: Sensory input or experiences to the individual that feel good or relieving to the student. (i.e., ‘looks good’, ‘taste good’, ‘feels good’, ‘smells good’, ‘sounds good’).

Escape(avoid): certain people, demands, settings, noises, aversive stimuli.

Attention: From peer(s), adults. Attention can be positive attention or negative attention.

Tangible: Access to an item or activity (i.e., food, toys, electronics, and other tangible items)”


Behaviors can be complex but it does not mean we are helpless to find replacement behaviors or strategies or collect the misbehavior.  We can systematically tackle each issue but choose to focus one at a time to keep it manageable.  For my son, I told him we were going to have lunch as soon as we got off the boat (check one issue). I let him know the boat was safe and there were life jackets if anything went wrong (check one issue).  I pointed out that he could still see the land and had him focus on one thing (check one issue). I sat with him and talked to him about what was exciting on the ship… And I didn’t lose him over the edge.

There are times where a FBA, functional behavior analysis, will not give us the answers we need. FBAs are based on the understanding of ABA. The idea that a function of a behavior results in an outcome that can be changed by adjusting the variables and identifying a replacement behavior.  But, according to PENT, “It is not best practice to conduct an FBA if the target behavior is not observable and it does not make sense to modify the behavior's definition so that it is observable.” (  They give the example; 

“If you're faced with an unobservable behavior like ‘feeling sad’ and want to stay in a behavioral framework by only focusing on addressing observable behaviors, then change your behavior's definition to something observable: ‘feeling sad’ becomes ‘cries and lays head on desk.’ However, if the goal is to address the cognitive components of ‘being sad’ (i.e., thoughts and feelings), then you should not do an FBA. FBA is rooted in the principles of applied behavior analysis, which exclusively targets observable behaviors. FBA is one tool in our large educational and social/emotional toolbox. It serves a very specific purpose, and sometimes it will not be the most appropriate choice.” (

Considering my son on the boat, if he was really feeling anxious about the boat sinking, or being out on the water, I could address symptoms of the anxiety but the root cause of his anxiety would not be something the FBA would identify.  He would need a different type of intervention to address WHY being on a boat spiked the anxiety resulting in his behavior. Luckily for me, his issues were minor and with a little TLC we were able to make it back to the dock just fine.  It was an important reminder to me that human behavior can be complex and requires commission and understanding above all else. 


Stephanie Lawless, Assistant Director