Why is my child doing this?  “The Functions of Behavior”

March 26, 2017

Many parents can take a guess at why their child may be doing something, but the answer is not always so simple and apparent! Once you discover why a child is behaving a certain way, what do you do? Analyzing the functions of your child's behavior reveals how to prevent it!


The functions of behavior explain why the behavior is occurring, and in applied behavior analysis, one of these functions, or a concurring few of these functions maintain all behavior. These four functions of behavior are attention, tangible, escape/avoidance, and automatic (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2008).


When a behavior’s function is attention, that behavior is maintained by the behavior of others (Cooper et al, 2008). Attention can be physical attention from any being or beings, even as simple as you entering the room, saying kind statements, giving hugs and kisses, or getting you to leave the attention of others to attend to them.


When a behavior occurs to access any mode of tangible items, this is called tangible (Cooper et al, 2008). This is where you think of items like candy, toys, but it also include things that are not “items” like a comforting toy, listening to music, watching a video clip- anything you may be able to give another person. Attention and access to tangibles can often occur together! For example, Joe engages in inappropriate comments because he enjoys when his peers laugh and enjoys when teachers play his favorite music to "calm him down."


Thirdly, there is escape/avoidance, where terminating or postponing aversive events has maintained that behavior (Cooper et al, 2008). For example, a student asks to go to the bathroom during every work session, and that request has always been allowed. They do it even when they don’t have to go to the bathroom, because they are escaping work demands! The function of bathroom requests is escape/avoidance. Or in another instance, a student drops to the floor in non-compliance when transitioning to the school bus in the afternoon.


Lastly, we have automatic- behavior that is maintained by sensory or self-reinforcement (Cooper et al, 2008). Automatic behaviors often exclude a “second party" and are often thought to be "sensory" behavior.   Behaviors where the function might be automatic includes self-stimulation (such as scripting, hand flapping, or rocking), or self-injurious behaviors. 


It is essential to learn the function of a behavior!  Do not be fooled into thinking that all behaviors serve the same function! Behaviors that have the same topography, or look the same, can serve different functions! For example, Billy engages is self-injurious behavior because every time it happens his teacher delivers attention  through physical touch.  Billy's self injury is likely maintained by attention.  On the other hand, you have Bobby who engages in self injurious behavior during reading tasks.  Every time he does it, the teacher delivers mastered work and does not return to reading tasks. Bobby's self-injury is likely maintained by escape from demands.  Although the two boys engage in the same behavior, it serves different functions for each!


Why are functions important? The intervention should match the function of the problem behavior. The function also shows us how to appropriately manipulate antecedents and the environment, create replacement behaviors, alter the consequence (what happens immediately after the behavior),and how to create appropriate interventions. There is no one size fits all  treatment for every person, or every behavior.  But with the correct analyses and empirically supported interventions in place, we are able to change any and all behavior!


What can you do at home as a parent? Clearly define contingencies based on your child's behaviors and consistently follow through. Any spur of the moment contingency is considered a bribe; you will find success when your child understands what they are working for every time. Find what their function of behavior is and alter the antecedent or consequence.  For example, if your child engages in tantrums to get your attention and access junk food, consistently ignore and withhold junk food when the tantrums occur. See how that goes; and then the junk food will be a desired reinforcer in future interventions to increase desired behaviors.  If you are unsure of the function of your child's behavior, work with your BCBA to determine the best method of intervention!




Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2008). Applied behavior analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.


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