What are functions of behavior?

stop screwing up parenting (when you’re just trying to do it right): learning the functions of behavior

“Why are you doing that?!?!?” I ask myself, as I watch my kids do something at least 147 times a day. If you think that number is an exaggeration, remember, I have four BOYS. Now you understand. 

When I think about why my kids are doing something, I am asking about the functions of behavior.

The functions of behavior are powerful. They are the tools by which we, as parents, can understand and change behavior.   Functions can be used to strengthen or weaken behavior. The key is to know 1) what function is at work for any given behavior and 2) how to use that function to make behavior change move in the right direction. 

Here’s the big bad warning about functions. As much as you can use them to make behavior go in the right direction, you can also mistakenly let them move the needle in the wrong direction. This is a lesson in using your powers for good and not evil. 

Let’s look at each function and examine how it can be both helpful and harmful. 

autism and rewards


It’s not a surprise at all that attention from others is a huge reason why behavior occurs. When we receive praise or compliments or interactions from people around us, we are much more likely to continue to the do things that result in attention. Attention is also powerful enough to build undesired behaviors, like tantrumming, hitting your sibling, or refusing to go to bed. It makes sense that these are behaviors that cannot be ignored. If a child bites his sister’s arm or falls on the ground in the middle of Target,  you are going to respond, likely in a loud and animated way, which can be very entertaining. This fun form of attention, even if you never meant for it to be fun, is powerful enough to encourage  biting or tantrumming such that it occurs again and again in hopes of getting that attention again. This occurs in the classroom often and results in the ‘class clown’ or the ‘class bully’ because they are getting tons of attention from their peers or teachers. 


Behaving to escape or to remove something can be very adaptive. Think about the extreme example of escaping from a burning room by leaving, or the less extreme, but maybe just as valuable example of escaping from your supervisor’s anger by completing a task on time. Escape behavior saves lives. Escape can also create and maintain maladaptive behaviors. Tantrumming gets a child out of having to complete an assignment or aggression gets them removed from a situation where they feel overwhelmed. In the future, those behaviors are likely to be present when the child wants to escape again. 


Like attention, it is very easy to understand that getting an actual item is likely to increase a certain behavior. The most common example of this is a paycheck. As much as you love your job, you likely would not keep doing it without a paycheck. Food is another great example of a powerful tangible. Getting things is powerful enough that it can also produce unwanted behaviors, such as gambling and stealing, but access to tangibles is present in less extreme cases, too. Consider what happens when a child is given candy when they start to meltdown in the checkout line. It is likely to increase tantrums the next time you are at the checkout. 


Behaviors that are maintained by an automatic or sensory function can have both good and bad effects. The great feeling that occurs after exercise is automatic and makes exercise more likely, but this great feeling can also occur for children when they touch their private parts (link to touching himself post). While touching your genitals is not problematic on its own, it can become a barrier to future learning if it takes up too much of the child’s interests, in the same way that exercising 20 hours per day would be considered intrusive, even though exercise is generally thought to be a good thing. 

functions of behavior

Yep, just four functions of behavior are the key

But just because it’s simple does not mean it’s easy. Behavior can change function over time. In other words, just because you think you’ve figured out the function doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t change. 

Spoiler alert: this is one of the primary reasons that ‘bad’ behavior is so hard to extinguish. It starts out as a random behavior, but quickly gets attention or escape or tangibles and then becomes much stronger. 

Behavior can also occur for more than one function. In other words, in some situations, behavior can have an attention function, but the same behavior could have an escape function in another situation, and in a third situation the same behavior can occur for both of these reasons. We define this as behavior that is multiply maintained because it sounds nicer than saying it’s completely maddening. 

Because behavior and its functions can change over time or vary according to the situation, it is important to be systematic about how we look at behavior. The best way to do that is to use the ABC model of behavior (link to ABC) and analyze what is happening so you can respond to the right things in the right way. 

So where does this leave us? 

Because behavior and its functions can change over time or vary according to the situation, it is important to be systematic about how we look at behavior. The best way to do that is to use the ABC model of behavior.

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