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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lunsford

What is “Functional contextualism”?

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Functional contextualism is the idea that the function of a behavior (the reason for its occurrence) changes with the context and situations with the environment. Before diving in further, let's review to functions of behavior:

  • Access to a Tangible

  • Attention Seeking

  • Sensory Seeking

  • Escape/Avoidance

Access to a Tangible

In simple terminology having access to a tangible means the person wants to interact with a specific object or person in their environment.


  • If someone is on a bus and asks "Hi, do you mind if I sit there", they are requesting a specific seat; therefore, the function of their behavior is access to a tangible (the seat).

  • In a school setting, a child may say "Mrs. Smith, may I go to the bathroom?" In this case, the child is accessing Mrs. Smith by verbally saying her name, while requesting access to the bathroom. One could argue that this behavior serves the function of attention as well.

Access to Attention

In the context of problem behavior in the pediatric population, access to attention is often sought out in pejorative ways. It is important to note that the function of attention does not have the traditional context. This simply means that a behavior is reinforced by access to attention.


  • Some children, especially those with special needs, may throw things at their classmates or teacher(s) to access their attention. Reliant on the individual this behavior could be treated by teaching the child to raise their hand instead of throwing an object to obtain the teachers attention. This would result in the student accomplishing the same access to attention in a less harmful manner.

Sensory Seeking

In the clinical setting, sensory-seeking behavior is fairly rare. The best “real life” example of this is roller coasters at an amusement park. In this case, if someone rides a roller coaster, the action of their behavior is “thrill-seeking” since they are seeking out the physical sensations associated with riding a roller coaster.


Escape/avoidance is relatively common. Below is an example from my own experience before becoming licensed (through clinicals).

Example 1

I had a pediatric patient that had a co-morbid diagnosis (comorbidity is the presence of one or more conditions often co-occurring with a primary condition) of oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) and intermittent explosive disorder (IED).

  • He struggled in math, so when he was presented with a difficult math worksheet or problem, he'd become angry and trash the classroom.

  • Doing this allowed him the "escape" he needed to avoid doing his math work, because he did not like the way it made him feel.

Example 2

running away from bees because you are scared means that you have an underlying cause due to a phobia that leads you towards "escape" and "avoidance" of being around them (Meliss phobia).

Now that we understand the idea of behavioral function, we can examine the idea of contextualism.


The idea of something in a specific context. This means the function of our behavior (why we do what we do) changes based on the context of our surroundings.


  • Some of may want to avoid mathematics if it is not taught by a specific teacher or professor.

  • People who have a phobia of snakes may be okay seeing them if they are behind an extremely thick piece of glass, as in a controlled environment, like a zoo. Due to this phobia, the same person would panic if they were to see a snake in the open without a barrier in between them.

The idea of functional contextualism serves as one of the main pillars of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

ACT will be one of our main focal points during our therapeutic work together.

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