The 4 Functions of Behavior

functions of behavior access

What are the functions of behavior?

Everything we do has a reason behind it, right? In special education, ABA, and counseling settings, we are often asked to address challenging behavior—behavior that impedes the learning of the student or that of others. Whether you have a reluctant learner, you’re working on an FBA, or simply want to be proactive in your teaching strategies, thinking about behavior functions is where to start!

One way to analyze challenging behavior is start with the WHY… the FUNCTION of the behavior. It’s not the ONLY thing we do, but it’s a BIG thing, so let’s dive in.

Form does not equal Function

First, a word. Many times in my career, I received requests for behavioral support for a student which typically included information about what the student was DOING that was disrupting the class or setting. From the standpoint of a behavior analyst, I’m much less interested in what a behavior looked like as I am about why it’s happening in the first place. 

“I could be yelling because I want your attention, or I could be yelling because I want that cookie, or I could be yelling because my tummy hurts.”

This is why we talk so much about function. Learning what the student is saying with their behavior will better guide us in our decision of what strategies to try and also why we focus so much on communication! So when we ask lots of questions about what was happening before a behavior and what happened after a behavior, this is why. 

meltdown or tantrum

TWO functions of behavior

We will expand more on this, but if you really hone in on the functions of behavior, you can refine it to just two things: something you want, and something you don’t want. We’re either trying to get something or avoid something in about everything we do. For the most part, however, we talk about the 4 functions of behavior…

What are the FOUR functions of behavior?

The most common categories that functions of behavior fall into are: Access, Attention, Escape, and Sensory. You’ll hear them called different things from different organizations, and they’ve evolved over time. You may also hear “control” and “medical” as possible functions, but those 4 functions are the most accepted and referred to in all the literature, so I’ll focus on those.

Some Data Collection Ideas for You...

Functions of Behavior -- Access or Tangible

"I Want Something"

This could be items, activities, food, whatever. 

Examples: Jacob is shopping with mom. Jacob sees a candy bar. Jacob cries and pulls on mom. Mom gives Jacob the candy bar. Jacob stops crying.

Janie hits another child at recess because she wants the ball. 

Jude drops to the floor because he wanted to be line leader.

Jamie continues to go to a job they don’t like because it pays well.

Strategies to consider: 

  • Teach “Can I have?”
  • First this, then you can have…
  • Not now, but …
  • Not this, but …
functions of behavior access

Functions of Behavior -- Escape or Avoid

"I Don't Want Something"

functions of behavior escape

Get me out of here; Stop that, I don’t like it; I’m not doing that. 

Escape = getting away from something the student doesn’t like

Avoidance = getting away from something the student doesn’t like BEFORE it actually happens

Examples: Jacob is shopping with mom. Mom wants Jacob to walk. Jacob pulls on mom’s hand and then sits down on the floor. Mom picks him up and puts him in the cart.

Janie crosses her arms and slumps in chair during math time.

Jude runs to the corner when his OT comes to get him. 

Jamie doesn’t take their boyfriend’s call after a big fight.

Strategies to consider:

  • Teach “I don’t want” or “I need a break”
  • Do this much, then break
  • I know, but we need to because…
  • Let’s find something different to do

Functions of Behavior -- Attention or Connection

"I Need Someone"

I need your attention and I’ll get it if it’s positive or negative. I am lacking positive connections in my life, so I will engage in a behavior to try to fill that void. 

It is common for challenging behavior to occur for attention if we are only paying attention when students are behaving “correctly.”

Examples: Jacob is shopping with mom. Mom is concentrating on her list. Jacob begins to cry and pull on mom. Mom turns to Jacob and kisses on his face. Jacob stops crying. 

Janie makes farting noises in class, and the other students laugh.

Jude breaks his pencil everyday. When he does, the teacher always comes over to bring him a new one.

Uh, just about everyone on TikTok. 🙂

Strategies to consider:

  • Teach “Can I have a minute/chat?”
  • First this, then we can…
  • We can … [when], and I’m so excited to spend that time with you then!
  • Opportunities to “shine”
functions of behavior attention

Functions of Behavior -- Sensory or Automatic

"I Have an Internal Need"

functions of behavior sensory

I have an internal need that needs to be met.

In this case, reinforcement is not environmental or delivered by another person, it is internal, a physical consequence for the individual. We all have these!

  • Scratching a bug bite
  • Reading a book
  • Eating good food

The most common in autism include repetitive motor movements (e.g., toe walking, flapping, body rocking, humming, pacing), perseverative thoughts, actions, and verbals (e.g., talking about the same subject, making same noises), visual stimulations (e.g., string flicking, staring at lights, turning things on/off to see them, and restricted food preferences. 

***A note here about self-stimulatory behavior (or “stimming”). There is NOTHING wrong with stimming! It’s often a way for someone to self-regulate or reduce anxiety. As long as it’s not dangerous or impeding (significantly) someone’s learning or the learning of others, it’s all good! Let the person regulate themself. 🙂

Examples: Jacob is shopping with mom. Jacob sees a candy bar. Jacob picks up the candy bar and flicks the paper in front of his eyes. Mom can’t get him to leave it alone and eventually gives Jacob the candy bar, and he continues to play with the paper.

Janie covers her ears when walking into class every day.

Jude cries for no known reason but appears to be holding his tummy.

Jamie isn’t able to maintain a personal relationship because they can’t kick their addiction to porn. 

Strategies to consider:

  • Teach “I need …”
  • Teach when and where
  • Teach/provide alternatives that meets same need
whats the function of behavior

Multi-faceted

While we try to find “the” function of a behavior when we’re looking to change it, it’s almost never that simple, is it? Behaviors can be complex and intricate. 

The most common dual-function I have observed in my career is a behavior that is triggered by the need to escape or avoid something, and then maintained by the attention the behavior has evoked in others. So a student may start ripping paper and breaking pencils in class because they don’t want to do the math, but then the students are watching, and when the teacher has to step in, the student is also getting all that attention for the behavior! Makes it tricky to address!

In the end, we just have to do our best to get to know our students, build solid relationships with them, set up an environment for their success, and then do our best to address the primary function. In the case of the math, we can make sure the NEXT time we provide supports and reinforcement opportunities to the student beforehand with the intention to prevent the need to express their displeasure by taking it out on the paper and pencils in the first place. 

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Hi! I'm Audra!

I am a special education teacher, behavior analyst, and parent to an autistic adult. I love sharing the insights and resources I have gleaned over the past 25 years. Thanks for being here!

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