Understanding the Functions of Behavior

A primary purpose of applied behavior analysis (ABA) is to help individuals and families by addressing interfering or challenging behaviors. All kids throw tantrums, whine, or do not comply (follow directions), and so on. Understanding why the behavior is happening is crucial. Once the function (or the ‘why’ of the behavior) is determined, the behavior can be addressed. Today, we will discuss the four functions of behavior and how they are determined.

A common strategy used to determine the function of a behavior is through ABC data. While gathering ABC data, the following questions are needed:

  • What happens before the behavior (the antecedent)?
  • What is the behavior?
  • What happens after the behavior (the consequence)?

Image retrieved from https://medium.com/mah-behavior-support/start-here-roadmap-to-behavior-support-e7747caa295d

To help grasp the concept, let’s look at an example. A girl is crying in the check-out line at the grocery store. Before crying, the girl had asked her mom for candy and her mom said no. The girl continues to cry until her mom changes her mind and ends up buying her the candy. In this situation, the ABC data would be the following:

  • A: Parent says no to buying candy at a grocery store.
  • B: Child cries.
  • C: Child gets candy.

Using this information to find patterns in antecedents and consequences, a hypothesis can be made in regard to why the behavior is happening.

The Four Functions of Behavior

  • Attention: We all seek attention and interactions with others. Depending on the child, attention from certain people may be more reinforcing than others (e.g., peers versus teachers). In some cases, children may be seeking attention in any way possible, which includes both positive (e.g., laughing) and negative (e.g., yelling) attention.
  • Escape: When a non-preferred situation, task, or person is present, a child may engage in challenging behavior in order to escape.
  • Access to tangible items: The example above about the girl crying to get a candy bar (tangible item), demonstrates an individual’s behavior that is occurring to get access to some item.
  • Automatic: Some refer to this function as sensory. A behavior’s function is automatic when it is occurring because it is internally reinforcing (e.g., rocking, hand flapping).

Image retrieved from https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/vector-illustration-of-a-girl-crying-gm157038653-22295885

Strategies to Use Based on Function

  • Attention
    • Give frequent positive attention (e.g., tell your child “I love how you’re playing!”).
    • Teach appropriate ways to seek attention (e.g., have your child say, “Look at this!” to show you something instead of crying, or give a tap on your arm instead of hitting).
    • Ignore challenging behaviors that are seeking for attention (e.g., a child uses a cuss word that typically is either reprimanded or laughed at, ignore).
  • Escape
    • Teach appropriate ways to escape (e.g., have your child ask, “Can I be all done?” instead of throwing their food on the floor).
    • Follow through with the demand.
    • Teach how to ask for help if a task is difficult.
    • Offer choices.
  • Access to tangible items
    • Teach appropriate ways to ask (e.g., “Can I please have juice?”).
    • Follow through when the answer is no, to teach your child how to accept “no.”
    • Provide warnings when transitioning (e.g., Five more minutes to play video games”).
    • Set limits on access to certain tangibles.
  • Automatic
    • Reinforce behavior that is incompatible with interfering behavior (e.g., keeping hands in lap, instead of picking nose).
    • Provide opportunities for physical exercise/movement breaks.
    • Teach how to request for a break.
    • Teach a replacement behavior (e.g., chewing gum instead of grinding teeth).

It is important to note that a behavior can have multiple functions. For example, a child could be biting to get your attention, to escape from a demand, to get access to an item, or s/he likes how it feels to bite. If you are having any issues when it comes to behavior, be sure to consult a BCBA so a behavior plan can be created and implemented.


Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Challenging behavior as communication. In Evidence-based

instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities.

Pratt, C., & Dubie, M. (2008). Observing behavior using a-b-c data. The Reporter, 14(1), 1-4.